Four species of tree squirrels reside in Ohio, and all have their charms.
The smallest and least known is the southern flying squirrel. It is common but seldom seen because of its strictly nocturnal habits.
Slightly bigger is the red squirrel, which occurs statewide but is more localized than other squirrels. It has a distinct preference for coniferous trees.
Most common is the well-known eastern gray squirrel, the typical squirrel of parks and suburbia in this area. Those who feed backyard birds wage war with this mammal. The squirrels often win.
Then there is the largest squirrel of all, the gorgeous eastern fox squirrel. A whopper can weigh 3 pounds and stretch 3 feet or more from nose to outstretched tail tip. If there were a beauty pageant for squirrels, this one might wear the tiara.
They are foxy indeed, with underparts tinted in showy burnt-orange. The upper pelage is a lovely grayish-black.
From my experience, gray squirrels far outnumber foxes in Columbus and its neighborhoods. The latter becomes more common in rural areas.
I recently moved to Worthington, an area I have long been acquainted with. Gray squirrels are abundant, but I have never seen a fox squirrel in my neighborhood — until Jan. 9.
That morning, I glanced out a back window to see a huge black squirrel sitting prominently on an open snag. It was as if it was posing for me. I usually keep a camera with a big telephoto lens at the ready, in case something bizarre appears at the feeders. Photographic prep paid dividends in this case.
Not only did I document the yard’s first fox squirrel, but it also was a rare melanistic morph, or form. My first thought was that it was a melanistic gray squirrel, but the massive size and tinges of orange bleeding through on the animal’s underside gave it away.
Black forms are far more common in gray squirrels, and in some parts of Columbus such animals are local celebrities. Melanin-enhanced fox squirrels seem to be virtually unknown, at least in Ohio. I have many biologically literate friends, and not one has said they have seen a black fox squirrel.
Melanistic fox squirrels are known to occur, just in far fewer numbers than grays. Most black fox squirrels appear in the southern reaches of the range, which spans the eastern half of the U.S. Conversely, melanism in gray squirrels is more prolific in the northern parts of its distribution.
Although the genetic mechanisms that produce melanism in squirrels is well-understood, the role of environmental factors that favor melanism, and possible gene flow between fox and gray squirrels, is lesser known.
I have not seen the dusky fox squirrel since the day I discovered it. Maybe it’s the vanguard of a wave to come, or it was a flash in the pan. Such animals would certainly enrich our squirrel diversity, that’s for sure.