Dear Lake Simcoe Nature Detective: A family of black squirrels with "blond tails" has shown up in our woods this spring.
What a shock to see a big black squirrel with a blond/brown tail foraging under our bird feeder! What do you think?
Laurie Wallace, Big Bay Point
Eastern Gray Squirrels, Sciurus carolinensis, come in many different colours and colour combinations so the common name can be confusing. They are common to abundant in urban areas around Lake Simcoe and in recent years, I am observing them more in rural and remote areas. The most common colour in the south of our area is the grey morph but in the north most tend to be totally black. This melanistic form seems to have a higher cold tolerance. Research has found that the black squirrels have a higher percentage of heat loss and a reduction in basal metabolic rate compared to grey squirrels. There are small populations of pure white squirrels in isolated populations in areas like the town of Exeter and Bayshore Village near Orillia. Recently, there has been more reports of completely reddish-brown Eastern Gray Squirrels with the mixing of the grey and black. In most cases these squirrels are not completely reddish-brown but have grey or black bodies with reddish-brown tails or head and ears like those in your photos. Other genetic variations include individuals include grey squirrels with black tails and black squirrels with white tails.
We have been conducting Christmas Bird Counts in our area now since the early 1980's and when we first started these counts, we decided to count winter mammals as well. I wanted to record the ratio of black to grey Eastern Gray Squirrels in the counts each year for these counts. We have found that in the north part of Lake Simcoe around Orillia the ratio is around 10 black squirrels to every grey squirrel observed but in the south there is far more grey squirrels outnumbering black squirrels in some counts.
Of interest, while we are on the topic of squirrels, there is a unusual population in Barrie of totally black Red Squirrels, Tamiasciurus hudsonicus which is extremely rare. We may start observing multi-coloured red squirrels in Barrie in future years. The interesting fact about these different coloured squirrels is that the colour is mixed within the litter and vary in colour for each individual in the litter in some cases.
Lake Simcoe Nature Detective
Photos by Laurie Wallace