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Rocky the Flying Squirrel: Or, look Martha, Key West’s got squirrels

By Linda Grist Cunningham, editor and proprietor

Linda Grist Cunningham is editor and proprietor of Key West Island News and KeyWestWatch Media LLC. She and her husband, a park ranger at Fort Zach, live in Key West with their Cat 5s.

10/27/2013

Iguanas and chickens. There was a time when one could start a lively — if not particularly enlightening — Key West cocktail conversation with the invocation of just one of our free-ranging critters. No longer. Iguana and chickens are so last year. We are onto squirrels.

You know. Those cute things with the fuzzy question mark tails that eat all the pumpkin seeds out of the bird feeders on your Martha’s Vineyard deck? Squirrels. Like Rocky the Flying?

The past couple weeks Key Westers have been tripping over themselves to report the sighting (sightings?) of a GRAY SQUIRREL. Seriously, I heard reports half a dozen times this past week from folks who were not working under the delusion that it’s five o’clock somewhere. These sightings have made their ways into The Voice, the Key West Citizen newspaper’s anonymous, page two call-in column.

I saw the gray squirrel in the 1100 block of Grinnell two weeks ago.

That wasn’t a gray squirrel; it was a small old dude with a ponytail.

I missed the gray squirrel on Southard, but I did see a unicorn on Newton Street about three in the morning.

So was it a real Eastern gray squirrel, or just wishful thinking among East Coast Yankee transplants missing those acorn-hunting Fall friends? Assuming these folks did see a squirrel (and not riding astride the unicorn in the Fantasy Fest parade), it was most likely the Mexican gray (or red-bellied) squirrel, which was introduced in 1938 to Elliott Key by a local resident. The Eastern gray squirrel doesn’t make it this far; we don’t have the deciduous trees (think oaks not palms) in and on which they thrive. The Mexican gray is partial to coconut palms.

When Hurricane Andrew whipped through in 1992, state wildlife officials thought the squirrel was (to put it politely) extirpated. They found them alive and well again in 2005. (Hey, don’t take my word for it; read the original research.)

The Mexican gray squirrel is a native of Mexico (well, obviously) and Guatemala though if it’s made its way to Key West, then it’s more likely to have hitchhiked from Elliott Key, well over 100 miles up the Keys. Unless, of course, it swims like Diana Nyad.

Florida does have its own native, the Fox squirrel, and there’s about zero chance the squirrel siting here in Paradise was a Fox squirrel. Here’s what the Florida Fish and Wildlife experts¬† say:

Fox squirrels are most common in the Panhandle and northern part of the state. Of the three subspecies found in Florida, two are listed as threatened or endangered. One of these, the Big Cypress fox squirrel, occurs only in an area south of the Caloosahatchee River in southwest Florida. The other, Sherman’s fox squirrel, is found from southeastern Florida to Georgia and west to about the Choctawhatchee River.

And, thus ends today’s lesson. You now have exactly enough information to add squirrels to the iguanas and chickens for your next aimless sunset cocktail party. Personally, I’m headed out to hunt that unicorn.

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Linda Grist Cunningham

Linda Grist Cunningham is editor and proprietor of Key West Island News and KeyWestWatch Media LLC. She and her husband, a park ranger at Fort Zach, live in Key West with their Cat 5s.

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