Squirrels in and beyond Chicago: More black squirrels, a rare champagne-colored one, talking squirrels

Squirrels in and beyond Chicago: More black squirrels, a rare champagne-colored one, talking squirrels

A rare champagne-colored gray squirrel, which shows “interesting hypomelanism,” in Montgomery. | Provided by Lisa Dinon

Observations come on increasing numbers of black squirrels, the rarity of a champagne-colored squirrel and the question of talking squirrels.

Champagne-colored squirrels, talking squirrels and more black squirrels came from Ed Buric’s note about seeing his first black squirrels after living in Darien for more than 50 years.

Observations poured in.

“Suddenly several black squirrels this year in Brookfield and LaGrange Park, including one that likes to dig up seeds in my garden, may have stolen some of my peppers, and definitely taunts my dog,” Olaf Nelson messaged.

That’s backyard squirrels.

“And [last Saturday], for the first time ever that I can remember, we saw two in the Fruit and Vegetable Garden at the Botanic Garden on the bird walk there,” messaged Alan Anderson, who has a stable black-squirrel population in Des Plaines.

“I’m in the northwest suburbs… the black squirrels seem to almost outnumber the usual greys,” Mike Junge messaged.

File photo of a backyard black squirrel. Credit: Dale BowmanDale Bowman
File photo of a backyard black squirrel.

It’s not just here, Mike Skwira messaged, ”Black squirrels all over the place in northern Wisconsin this year. . . . Never seen so many.”

“I have seen several black squirrels in Portage and a few in Hammond Marina during the past few weeks, first time seeing them in these areas,” Mike Shine messaged.

“Black squirrels are definitely more abundant now than when I first started,” messaged Bob Massey, a wildlife biologist in the Chicago area for decades. “There are numerous ideas as to the reasoning. Dark phase is a benefit in urban areas is one thought. Dark squirrels are more tolerant of urban situations. (There is research for dark phases of other animals in urban areas being beneficial). Both grey and fax squirrels can have varying degrees of melanism. But also, social media has made it easier to relate stories of what we see.”

That made me reach out to Steve Sullivan. He took over Project Squirrel, co-founded in 1997 by Joel Brown, distinguished professor emeritus, biological sciences, at UIC, and his student Wendy Jackson. Sullivan is now director of the Hefner Museum of Natural History at Miami (of Ohio) University. I knew him as curator of urban ecology at the Chicago Academy of Sciences (Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum).

File photo of an inquisitive gray squirrel working down a tree. Credit: Dale BowmanDale Bowman
File photo of an inquisitive gray squirrel working down a tree.

“[T]he black morph of the grey squirrel is becoming more common throughout the country,” he emailed. “There are limited records that note coat color from the years prior to colonial deforestation and wide-spread pot hunting, but it seems the black morph was more common in previous centuries than it has been more recently, so, maybe, the black morph is rebounding, or maybe there is something in the current environment that favors it—kind of like the classic example of white pepper moths surviving in clean forests while darker individuals survived better on soot stained trees.

“One study showed that black individuals heat up a tiny bit faster. Maybe this means that during the most trying times of winter they need a few less acorns or can tolerate a little worse mange than grey colored squirrels to survive. There are at least two genetic forms of black that we can observe pretty easily—black and really dark brown—though many other color morphs exist in this species, along with seasonal color changes.”

As to other morphs.

“I have to send you photos of what I believe is an albino fox squirrel I saw in my yard in Montgomery last week,” Lisa Dinon emailed. “It had what I would call blond fur and reddish-pink eyes.”

That was a first for me.

“[It] is a grey squirrel (the long ears are the most quantifiable field mark) but that champagne color is unusual,” Sullivan explained. “You are correct that it is not technically an albino, but it does show interesting hypomelanism. I’ve never seen one with such diluted color. Hopefully, when it dies, it will end up in a museum collection where it can be used to better understand coat color genetics.

Then there’s this.

“I just wanted to ask you if you ever heard squirrels making talking sounds,” wondered Diane Tatkus of Monee. “We have a lot of squirrels in our backyard (including black ones) and while my husband, son and I have been sitting out on the deck this summer we hear them by my bird feeders making sounds that sound like groaning and the sound someone makes when they’re eating and enjoying their food, this is while the squirrels are eating the sunflower seeds I put out for the birds.”

On the deer stand, I often talk back to squirrels and once drew a curious fox squirrel so close, I could’ve grabbed it.

We’ll chat talking squirrels another day.

A 2017 photo of a fox squirrel. Credit: Dr. Elizabeth PectorDr. Elizabeth Pector
A 2017 photo of a fox squirrel.

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