Thom Smith | Naturewatch: Reader survey: Black squirrels becoming more common in region

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It is always exciting to see something new, and if it moves with the alacrity of a gray squirrel, and looks like a gray squirrel except for its color, then is it a gray squirrel even if it is black?

Yes, it is a melanistic gray squirrel, Sciurus carolinensis, and although some may be very dark brown, as caused by a reduction in multiple types of pigment, not just melanin.

Both are color variations of the same species.

Some say the black color in grays may well have been predominant throughout North America prior to the influx of Europeans in the 16th century — when old growth forests were thick and dark.

As forests were cleared and the squirrels were hunted for fur and food, the dark-colored squirrels no longer had an advantage and, in time, the grays became more widespread.

The color change from black to gray and back again is the result of genetic mutation in not only gray squirrels, but other species as well.

Melanistic is the opposite albinistic. "Normal" colored grays will mate with melanistic individuals or the other way around. The result may be both gray and black offspring. Among mammals in the wild, color makes little difference.

Where do local melanistic grays come from?

Our resident black squirrels most likely came from a small number released in Stanley Park in Westfield.

Story has it that in 1912 W. E. Kellogg (the cornflakes Kellogg) had coal-black squirrels introduced in Battlecreek, Mich., "where they throve and multiplied." In the late 1940s, two Stanley Home Products sales managers brought back a small number (some say six) of the Michigan black squirrels as a present for Frank Stanley Beveridge, the founder of Stanley Park in Westfield.

Shortly after release, none could be found, so more were brought to the park and were raised in a large cage at the park and released in 1948, establishing the colony from which the black squirrels we see today came. At least that is the consensus.

For many years that population grew, and as it out grew both neighborhood and food supply, many moved or better put, migrated along with the grays.

Some moved north, eventually reaching Vermont.

Others relocated south and on into Connecticut, as well as west to the Berkshires, over the mountains and into New York state.

In a Naturewatch survey I conducted in 1988-89, out of the 32 towns in Berkshire County, black squirrels were recorded in all but three, Florida, New Ashford and New Marlborough, with Naturewatch readers in Huntington, Middlefield, Blandford, and West Springfield, also reporting.

That was then, our recent poll, with reports still coming in, appear have observations from the Berkshires, Southern Vermont, and nearby New York communities, which pleases me.

Vermont readers reported: Wilmington (3), Sunderland (1with gray young), Brattleboro (2), Westminster (3).

From Massachusetts: Pittsfield (3),Sandisfield (1),Monterey (2), Richmond (4 black 1 brown), Tyringham (1), Great Barrington (5+),Housatonic (2), Interlaken (4), Lee (1), Williamstown (1), Dalton (8), Lenox (2), West Stockbridge (2).

Finally, from New York: Lebanon (1), New Lebanon (2), Canaan (several).

GRAY SQUIRRELS, NEITHER BLACK, BROWN, OR GRAY

Occasionally an all-white squirrel may be seen, often as not, it is a gray squirrel, although this condition is also familiar among chipmunks and red squirrels.

It is caused by a drastically reduced amount of dark pigments and most often leucistic or partially albinistic.

To be a true albino, the squirrel or any other animal would have pink ones. These are less common.

Thom Smith welcomes your questions and comments. Email him at Naturewatch@live.com or write him care of The Berkshire Eagle, 75 S. Church St., Pittsfield, MA 01201.

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