Thom Smith | NatureWatch: Mites, fungal infection may be cause for 'balding' squirrels

Q: Our local gray squirrels have seemed to have lost the fur off their tails. We noticed last summer only one squirrel afflicted with this, but now there are five or six running around that have either no fur or very thin fur on their tales. The squirrels seem to have fur on the rest of their bodies and appear to be adequate weight for this time of year. My husband and I have noticed that they have been scratching a lot. A website suggested that the affliction may be due to mites and recommended treating nut meats with Ivermectin to treat the mites. My concern is that birds also feed on the peanuts we put out for the squirrels. Any suggestions?

— Anne, Bennington Vt.

A: These arboreal rodents are amazing in their ability to remain abundant with all the challenges they face from encounters with automobiles to infestations of tiny mites. Watch two grays chasing one another along a power line one minute and find one of them lying on the ground having been electrocuted the next. Notice the birds tossing seeds from a squirrel-proof feeder with a smarty-pants gray gathering the morsels as they reach the ground one minute — only to be removed from the backyard fauna the next by a pet dog or cat. Our pup, getting on in years and a tad overweight, after years of chasing grays on our deck was successful last January in dispatching one.

Besides "man" and his contrivances, nature abounds with "fleas, lice, mites, cestodes, nematodes and trematodes, mange, scabies, rabies, tetanus and multiple skin fibromas plague gray squirrels," as listed by Alfred J. Godin in his 1977 edition of "Wild Mammals of New England." (A reference I have relied on since it was published.) Larger predatory fish, like the largemouth bass, pickerel and pike sometimes even catch swimming grays, and hawks and owls take their share. And squirrels with hair loss sometimes succumb to hyperthermia.

I suggest that you contact a veterinarian or animal control officer for advice on adding chemicals to the scenario. I will say that otherwise healthy grays will usually "get well" on their own. And the reason more than one squirrel with missing patches of hair or even a totally naked tail are seen together is the responsible mites can be carried from one squirrel to the next. In addition to mites, there is also a good chance that the hair loss is caused by a fungal infection.There is apparently no indication that whatever the cause, it is not known to travel to us or our household pets.

Q: Here I am again with another question. So many deer have been on my property all winter in their very dark coats. Later in the year, they sport coats of tan or light brown. Do these coats change color as the season progresses due to sunshine or some other factor or do they actually shed their darker coats to be replaced by lighter ones growing out?

Michael, Great Barrington, Mass.

A: They shed spring and fall. From what I have gleaned, in addition, darker deer are found more often in woods, while lighter ones are common in fields and agricultural areas. As for the color changes that occur in fall and spring by molting, darker shades occur to absorb more heat in winter and lighter red-brown tones occur in summer. The color changes (molting) occur quickly. Some say it is the deer's way of dealing with temperature.

Q: When the snow melts back to the bare lawn, we have found many holes, with soil around them, where something too large to be a mouse have dug out with signs of trails, even tunnels in partially melted snow. What animals does this? I know it isn't squirrels as the holes and trails are too small for them and too large for mice. Any ideas? This is the second winter in this home.

— Reader in Pittsfield, Mass.

A: You are making two wrong assumptions, and that is mice come in one size only and gray squirrels use tunnels beneath the snow. Squirrels are primarily arboreal. My thought is that the rodent causing this disruption beneath the snow is a mouse relative, not a house mouse or a deer mouse, but rather a meadow vole, also called the meadow mouse. These mouse-like rodents are stouter with a shorter hairy tail. They have smaller "beady" eyes and smaller ears. They are the scourge of bulb gardeners, damaging or eliminating carefully fall-planted spring flowers. They damage grass and often dig numerous holes in lawns.

Thom Smith welcomes readers' questions and comments. Email him at or write him care of The Berkshire Eagle, 75 S. Church St., Pittsfield, MA 01201


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