Thursday, January 9, 2020

A melanistic fox squirrel

As always, click the photo to enlarge

Right time, right place. I happened to glance out the porch windows into the backyard this afternoon, and was stunned to see a huge black squirrel perched prominently 25 feet away. It was the only time all afternoon that I glanced out there. My first reaction was to grab my big telephoto, which I often leave set up on a tripod for emergency situations. Unfortunately, I had to shoot the beast through a window, but the images came out okay in spite of that.

While my initial thought was that the unusually pigmented animal was a melanistic gray squirrel, as soon as I looked closer I rethought that identification. This squirrel was noticeably larger and chunkier than several nearby gray squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis), and through the lens I could see its interesting orangish cast, caused by underlying hairs. This orangish tint is especially apparent on the squirrel's belly, face, and eye ring.

It was a melanistic fox squirrel, Sciurus niger! I had heard of such a thing, but had never before clapped eyes on one. I've seen many melanistic gray squirrels, and have written about them HERE. Indeed, at my annual forays at NettieBay Lodge and vicinity in northern Michigan, this is the common form of gray squirrel. Here in Ohio, "black" grays are far less common, but there are numerous enclaves scattered about. Melanistic gray squirrels appear glossier and more uniformly black than does this one, with a less robust tail, head and neck, and a skinnier gestalt. A typical fox squirrel is a beautiful mammal, with a deeply orange pelage. HERE is a post about them from long ago.

Much has been written about melanism in Sciurus squirrels, at least the two eastern species, fox and gray. Here's an especially detailed and wonky paper should you wish to learn more - just CLICK HERE. Sometimes, populations or individuals of "white" gray squirrels occur, such as the famous white squirrels of Brevard, North Carolina (CLICK HERE for more). I made a special detour last year to see those squirrels, and will have to write about them sometime. I'm not sure if "white" fox squirrels occur regularly.

Anyway, today's oddity fox squirrel was especially odd to me, as I know of no population of variant color morphs of squirrels anywhere around here - Worthington, Ohio. I'm told there are some colonies of melanistic gray squirrels in and around Columbus, but I've not seen any. This was also the first fox squirrel in this yard, to my knowledge. This little slice of suburbia is full of typically colored gray squirrels, and I just posted a cute photo of one a few days ago, HERE. There is even a pair of eastern red squirrels, Tamiasciurus hudsonicus, constantly tearing around here. But never one of the big, comparatively clumsy fox squirrels. And the first one turns out to be a real standout. I kept a close watch for the black/fox squirrel the rest of the afternoon, but did not see him again. I hope he becomes a regular.

NOTE: Regular color variants of an animal - such as this fox squirrel, gray squirrels, or rough-legged hawks, or snow geese - are correctly termed morphs, not phases. Morphs are stable, occur regularly, and do not change or shift color. If they are black, or white, they will remain black or white throughout their lives. Phase indicates a shift or change in development over time, such as in a phase of the moon. If squirrel variants did shift colors from black to orange in the course of their development, phase could be applied as a descriptor. However, they do not. I add this because I see the word phase so commonly misapplied :-)

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