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Eastern Gray Squirrel

Sciurus carolinensis

Identifying Characteristics

  • often has grey fur but can also be black or reddish brown with a white underside
  • long bushy tail, 19-25 cm long
  • head and body length about 23-30 cm
  • long, slightly hairy ears
  • brown face, feet and flank
This is a photograph of an adult Eastern Gray Squirrel in a tree. 5 images
This is a map of British Columbia showing the spread of invasive species.

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(Video 2:44 3.78 MB)

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Video transcript

Gavin Hanke, Curator, Vertebrate Zoology, Royal BC Museum

I’m Gavin Hanke, Curator of Vertebrate Zoology at the Royal BC Museum. BC’s tree squirrels, we have a few species. They’re actually quite easy to identify.  

The most distinctive, I think and I think the most interesting is the Flying Squirrel. Very soft, grey to brown pelt and, of course, you can’t miss that it’s got these flaps of skin to help it glide from tree to tree.

This is an image of a flying squirrel with arms and legs extended held by curator Gavin Hanke.

So, very distinctive, it’s nocturnal, it’s one of our native species.

The Red Squirrel, another one of our native species and Douglas Squirrel, also native. They look very much alike. The Red Squirrel has a nice, rusty, red back and a pale belly. The Douglas Squirrel has more of a darker, brown back and this bright, orangey, cinnamon sort of a belly. They’re quite distinctive.

Now for comparative purposes, here’s one of the invasives. This is a Gray Squirrel. 

This is a close up image of a native Red Squirrel next to an alien Gray Squirrel specimen.

A Gray Squirrel, next to a Red Squirrel, you can see that they are significantly different in size.  Now, Gray Squirrels come in a dark form and this is the typical, grizzled grey-brown form. We also have the Fox Squirrel which is slowly making its way into the Okanagan region.  Fox Squirrels also look a lot like Gray Squirrels. They are quite distinctive and easy to tell apart.  

The Red Squirrel, our native species, is more often found in coniferous forests and they are province wide. They are widespread boreal forest animals.

This is an image of a native Red Squirrel next to an alien Gray Squirrel specimen.

The Gray Squirrel has only been introduced in a few locations, the Lower Mainland, southern Vancouver Island, and it really does well in and around people. So, urban environments, parks, they are all over the place.

This is a close up image of a native Red Squirrel next to an alien Gray Squirrel specimen showing the fur on their backs.

People do like to feed them so they do very well around us. They also, because southern Vancouver Island is the Garry Oak ecosystem, these guys have an impact because they will eat the acorns of the Garry Oak. Not only are they invading in urban environments, but they are also impacting a rare plant species in British Columbia.

Let’s face it, that’s a big squirrel.

This is an image of Dr. Gavin Hanke with a squirrel specimen in a Royal BC Museum lab with a whale skeleton in the background.

They have the ability to dominate territory, they can evict other smaller native squirrels out of their nests if they wanted to. Based on its sheer size and presence that is intimidating for our native species. You can expect that a Gray Squirrel could have a severe impact on the native species if it invaded a new region.

Report a Sighting

An urban alien commonly seen in the trees.

This is an illustration of an Eastern Gray Squirrel. Eastern Gray Squirrel

The Eastern Gray Squirrel is a common sight in cities and is easily identified by its distinct, bushy, grey and white tail. This species is native to Eastern North America but has spread rapidly throughout the Pacific Northwest. The Gray Squirrel is found in city parks, urban areas and rural woodlands, preferably close to plenty of nut trees. The species is most commonly identified by its large tail, which it uses for balance while racing between tree branches. It also provides warmth in winter and helps distract predators.

Impact on Communities and Native Species

Gray Squirrels are a danger to native plant and animal species. They often strip the bark from a young oak tree and cut out the embryonic root in acorns they collect, preventing germination. They feed on native lily bulbs, such as Camas, and are particularly dangerous to the fragile Garry Oak ecosystems. As well, Gray Squirrels prey on nesting birds, eating bird eggs and nestlings. They raid backyard feeders for seed and compete with native bird species for tree cavities.

Invasion History

Gray Squirrels have spread rapidly across the province. In 1914, eight squirrels imported from New York were released in Stanley Park, and by 1920, the species was fully established in Vancouver. The widespread Gray Squirrel population on Vancouver Island originated from one male and two females that escaped from a game farm outside of Victoria in 1966. Private pest companies and wildlife rehabilitators have also helped spread this species, trapping squirrels or rescuing orphaned squirrels and then releasing them, possibly in new habitat.