Jeff Green | Mar 22, 2007
Back to HomeNatureReflections - March 22, 2007
When isGray notGray?
Nature Reflections by Jean Griffin
Silly question? Not when you are talking about the Eastern Gray Squirrel. Normally a medium-sized squirrel with upperparts dark yellowish rusty, especially on head and back; legs, arms, sides of neck, and sides of rump with gray-tipped or white-tipped hairs, giving a gray tone to these parts; hairs of tail dull yellow at base, then blackish, and tipped with white; underparts white; ears with conspicuous white spot at base in winter. So its colour is not just gray.
But like some other animals, such as the Black Bear, an Eastern Gray Squirrel can exist in other colours - black, blonde and white. The black or melanistic phase is fairly common in some areas, particularly here in eastern Ontario. In fact I am more apt to see a black squirrel (though sometimes with a white-tipped tail) than a gray one. (Notice I always capitalize the true name of a species such as the Eastern Gray Squirrel to differentiate against a gray squirrel - which might be a gray of a different species).
I had a call from Pearl Whitfield who lives on Myers Cave Road about a ‘blonde’ squirrel she had visit her home on February 22, and again on March 4 and March 13. This is an Eastern Gray Squirrel, though when I started to search for more information on it, I found that it is indeed a rare colour phase. The white phase apparently exists in small pockets in both Canada and the United States, with a few of these being albinos. Albinism is caused by blood in the capillaries which causes the eyes to be pink and the skin to be pinkish and may cause problems with both of these areas. White squirrels with black eyes are not albinos but should more properly be called leucistic.
Certainly blonde and white squirrels are not common, possibly because they are more easily spotted by predators. I have also read that sometimes these unusual colours may be rejected by the more ‘normally-coloured’ animals, but I do not know if this is true. One article suggests that the lightly-coloured ones would survive more readily in an urban setting where competition for food and space might be less.
Gray squirrels are active year-round and arboreal; they cannot live in a treeless environment. They feed on a great variety of things, such as nuts, seeds, fungi, fruits, and the cambium layer of tree bark, as well as bones and turtle shells. They store nuts and acorns in holes in the ground. Gray squirrels mate in January - February and July in the north. The blonde visitor at Pearl’s was in the company of a black one. If they have mated, what colour will their offspring be?