Outdoors by Rick Brockway: Squirrels of a different color

The other day as my wife and I walked into Hannaford, a man stopped me and said that I should write about the black gray squirrels that he is seeing in Delhi. He told us that he had never seen them there until the past couple of years.

Several years ago, Pat and I went to Wellesley Island to camp with friends. Wellesley Island is part of the Thousand Islands in the St. Lawrence River. There is a great state park there, and the entire area is a wonderful place to visit. That’s where I saw my first black gray squirrel. And there wasn’t just one. There were dozens of them.

Back home on the farm we had lots of gray squirrels in our woods. Heck, it was perfect habitat for them. Giant oak trees and big gray-barked beech trees were plentiful on top of the hill. They never had a shortage of food with all the acorns and beechnuts. But in all the years I’ve spent wandering that forested hilltop, I have never seen a black squirrel.

According to the Massachusetts Audubon Society, a black squirrel is just a gray squirrel in disguise. Other sources say it’s because of a cross between the fox squirrel and the gray squirrel. Some scientists believe that they are just a different color phase of the gray squirrel. But obviously, where there’s one there are usually several, so it is probably a color gene or recessive gene that is passed on among the species.

In Oneonta, along Orchard Street in the area behind the Dairy Queen, there are two or three white squirrels. I have seen them several times, but never was close enough to see if they are albinos. An albino animal will have pink eyes as well as white hair and skin. Usually an albino is a rarity, so I expect that these rodents are another color phase, but what do I know?

I saw an albino buck deer in New Berlin a few years ago, but that was the only one. But what about the white moose with two white babies that I’ve seen on the internet several times? Were all three of them albinos or just a different mutation?

In the western United States and adjacent Canadian provinces, the brown color phase of the black bear is very common. We stopped and watched a brown-phase black bear right along the Going to the Sun Road in Glacier National Park several years ago. It was a wonderful addition to our trip, especially since the road over the top of the mountains was still blocked with 22 feet of snow. We started up the western side of the mountains but were soon stopped by the deep snow, so we drove around to St. Mary, Montana and drove up as far as we could go from the eastern side of the park.

A black bear can have two of three cubs every two years, and in the west it is not uncommon for one or two of them to be different colors.

In Labrador retrievers, two black dogs can produce black, yellow or chocolate-colored puppies. The chocolates and yellows are caused by recessive genes. Maybe it’s the same with bears.

Well enough of this speculation. I know that nature sometimes does the strangest things. If you get a chance to see it, just consider yourself lucky and enjoy the moment.

I want to wish all my readers a very happy and prosperous New Year.

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