Sunday, March 24, 2013

Gray Squirrels also come in black

Back on March 8, I found myself at Tom Ruggles' place in Zanesville, attempting to observe and photograph Jeffrey, his spectacular yellow Northern Cardinal. You can see photos and read about this amazing bird HERE.
 
As is often the case while watching feeders, we were routinely distracted by marauding squirrels. On this day, however, we found ourselves rather charmed by their antics, and I was thoroughly smitten by certain of these bushy-tailed rodents.
 
We noticed this pair of Gray Squirrels, Sciurus carolinensis, way out in the back part of the lot. I'm assuming this is an amorous pair filled with the seasonal lust of spring. They remained 20 feet up this tree, nearly nose to nose, for quite some time. A lesser male, presumably, watches wistfully from the tree to the left.

After a bit, the two squirrels sidled up side by side, possibly communicating telepathically (for all I know). They also remained like this for some time. Assuming the male was charming enough, the end result will be little squirrellets later this spring, the first of two batches. Gray Squirrels often have another breeding period in mid-summer.

Elfin squirrellets become big squirrels eventually, and turn their sights to the local bird feeders if any are at hand. Their fondness for seed leads to one of the greatest man vs. wildlife interactions in the lower 48 states. Frustrated feeders of birds wage all out war on the clever beasts, devising numerous ploys to prevent the furry spidermen from accessing the feeders. Normally, the squirrels win. This one is practically thumbing his nose at us, and we were but a few feet away peering through the windows. Tom's squirrel dog, which is essentially a miniature Golden Retriever, was right by our side and quaking and simmering with rage at the insolent interloper. However, I insisted that the dog put a cork in it so I could make photographs of the squirrels, which probably did not endear me to said canine.

This is the animal that I really wanted to see and make photos of - the "black" squirrel. There is a healthy population of these sooty-colored squirrels in Zanesville, and they intrigue me. Perhaps it is because I hail from a land which has no black squirrels. There are supposed to be colonies of them in and around Columbus, Ohio, where I live, but I never see them here. Only the grays. So the spectacle of one of these black squirrels is a treat for me, a bit like seeing an alien descend from Spaceship Oak.

Even though the so-called black squirrels look totally different than their gray brethren, they are pretty much one and the same. The blacks are melanistic Gray Squirrels - they have one or two special genes that rewires their genetics to produce an abundance of melanins, or dark pigments. While most are coal-black such as the fellow in the photo, sometimes individuals with blond, gray, or even white highlights can be found.

The city of Kent, Ohio is especially famous for its abundance of black squirrels. Supposedly, the original stock of 10 squirrels was imported in 1961 from Canada and they've since spread like wildfire. But melanistic Gray Squirrels occur naturally and most populations have probably long been present and were not assisted by people. The black squirrels are most prevalent in Ontario, Canada and the northeastern United States. One theory has it that the black form of the Gray Squirrel dominated prior to European settlement,  when forests were still primeval and their dark coats helped the squirrels better blend with the shady old-growth woodlands. As the forests were opened up and hunting of squirrels increased, gray forms were favored as they blended better with the changing habitats.

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7 comments:

A.L. Gibson said...

The neighborhood in which my grandparents live in, in Marion, Indiana has (perhaps had at this point, it's been a number of years) a population of melanistic grey squirrels...but with an extra special touch. The last 4-5 inches of their tails are completely blonde; as if they were dipped in whitish-yellow paint. I wish I had photographs to back up this claim but I've yet to see anything else like them anywhere. I never saw more than a few but it only took seeing them once to tattoo the image of black squirrels with blonde tails in your hear!

rebecca said...

The theory about black squirrels blending in better in a primeval forest reminds me of the black squirrels that lived in Mirkwood in The Hobbit! Maybe Tolkien got it right. :)

Jim McCormac said...

I have seen photos of such squirrels, Andrew, but never in person. It would be cool to gain access to such a colony and make photos of them.

Amy Gressell said...

I love the black squirrels! So much more interesting to look at than their brown friends. We have a lot of them in Lakewood, OH.

I've been know to spray the Shepard's hook that my bird feeder hangs on with WD-40 to keep the squirrels and chipmunks away. It's pretty hilarious to see them sliding down the pole over and over looking quite stumped :)

Jim McCormac said...

Lucky you, Amy G.! Living in a robust enclave of melanistic squirrels! And you oughta film some of those slip sliding squirrels that you've outwitted and expose them on YouTube!

Anonymous said...

Jim, all last summer I saw one or two black squirrels in the boggy woodlot on the south side of the bike trail on west OSU campus just east of the cornfields. Just recently spotted one there again.

Brent C. Kryda said...

The Canadian connection makes a lot of sense. I remember almost nothing BUT the black fellows growing up in Northern Ontario, and seeing only a few when my family moved to SE Michigan. The farther away you get from the border/rivers, the rarer they become. Port Huron has an absolute ton of them, as does the east side of Detroit, while the suburbs have next to none. You can also find them in Buffalo but almost none in Rochester!