For my master's research, I studied arctic ground squirrels on the North Slope of Alaska. From that work, I developed an affinity for squirrels, and was delighted to find a new favorite species when I moved to Flagstaff last August.
The Abert's squirrel (Sciurus aberti) is endemic to portions of the southwestern US and northwestern Mexico. What does endemic mean? Endemic is a word that scientists use to describe a native species that has a restricted range. Besides Abert's squirrels having a distinctive look with their tasseled ears, they are also special to us in Flagstaff because this area is one of the few places they call home.
Why do Abert's squirrels live in a place like Flagstaff? These adorable rodents are almost exclusively found in dry ponderosa pine forests. They primarily eat ponderosa and Mexican pinyon seeds, although when these are not available they will also eat buds, bark, and fungi. Eating fungus and passing it it through their droppings spreads fungal spores, which are beneficial to ponderosas; thus, the diet of the Abert's squirrel actually helps the growth of their favorite tree!
While Abert's squirrels are most readily identified by their tufted ears, they also have a distinct reddish-brown stripe on their backs, a very fluffy tail, and a white underbelly. In the summer, they shed their long ear hairs and lose their winter coat. In the fall, they regrow their ear tassels and thick coat to make it through the winter.
When are you most likely to see an Abert's squirrel? Take a walk through the forest around Flagstaff anytime after sunrise and before sunset and you may see one of these fuzzballs sprinting across the forest floor or squeaking high up in a ponderosa pine. Baby Abert's are present in nests—which are built from ponderosa twigs—between June 10th and July 27th, so you might see youngsters emerge if your stroll is during late summer.
In Flagstaff, we have our very own Abert's mascot. His name is Albert. He loves to share friendly reminders about how we can live more gently on the Earth. Have you seen Albert around town?
Want to see Abert's squirrels in your back yard? Hang a bird feeder (which may soon turn into a squirrel feeder!) and wait for these acrobatic critters to come looking for snacks.
Written by Sara Wilbur