“Mom, there’s a black squirrel in the flat area.”
It was 5:30 p.m. on a balmy day in early March and my son Dave and I were fixing dinner in the kitchen.
I rushed to the window, grabbed my binoculars, and called my husband Bruce to come and see the unusual eastern gray squirrel.
In the meantime, the squirrel had climbed up the back slope and we thought it would come to our bird feeder area below our porch steps. Instead, it veered over to the far edge of my backyard herb garden beside the feeders and ran off. A few minutes later Bruce spotted it below the slope near our old springhouse before it disappeared.
During our 46 years on our mountain we had never seen a black gray squirrel, although I knew there was a population on the Penn State Altoona campus at the base of the Allegheny Front. And later, our caretaker Troy told us he had never seen any black squirrels on our Brush Mountain, the westernmost ridge in the Ridge-and-Valley Province, but he added that there was a population in a small village at the base of our mountain on the Logan Valley side.
The next time I saw the black squirrel, spring had officially arrived even though it was 17 degrees and the ground had frozen hard again. I stepped outside in the early morning and glimpsed the squirrel at the bottom of a backyard black walnut tree. Spotting me, it ran downslope to the flat area and up into the woods on Laurel Ridge.
On April 3, I again glimpsed the black squirrel in the flat area at 7:30 a.m. A gray squirrel, one of the army of 10 raiding our feeders every day, chased it back up into the woods.
Two days later, after returning from my morning walk, I stopped to admire the blooming hyacinths and daffodils in our backyard. That’s when I noticed the black squirrel crossing the flat area. I watched it through my binoculars while it searched for food beneath the leaf cover at the edge of the woods, and paused a couple times to scratch itself.
Once a gray squirrel approached but did not chase it. Nevertheless, the black squirrel retreated but continued foraging. Next it climbed on to fallen trees, using them as runways. Once it sat up on its hindquarters and I saw that it had an orange underbelly. Then it continued slowly on its trek over to the springhouse and wetland where I lost sight of it among the cattails.
Although I continued looking for it throughout the following months, I never saw it again. I figured that a predator had caught it or that it had been visiting and had moved on. But last November one of our archery hunters saw it still living nearby.
Our black squirrel is one of three possible color phases of the eastern gray squirrel. In Pennsylvania most eastern gray squirrels are gray, but there are also brown-black gray squirrels (our “black” squirrel) and jet black gray squirrels. Canadian researchers, writing in the Journal of Heredity in 2009, studied the color variations in the coat of the eastern gray squirrel by inspecting the hair from all three types under the microscope and found that the eastern gray squirrel “had 6 distinct hair types, compared with 4 from the brown-black and only 1 from the jet black.”
“These different hair types,” they wrote, “give the gray an overall grizzled appearance with a white underbelly, the brown-black an overall dark brown appearance with an orange underbelly, and the jet black a uniform black appearance.”
Or, in the words of Dr. Carolyn Mahan, professor of biology at Penn State Altoona, “The genetic basis of this color phase was researched and determined to be a simple dominant/recessive interaction. Black color is dominant, gray is homozygous recessive, and it sounds like you have a heterozygous individual.”
Mahan adds that the brown/black squirrels have been on the campus at least since 1999 when she began teaching there. She says that, “It is not that they ‘arrived’ there. It is just that the allele [one of a group of genes that occur alternately at a place] for the black color is present in that population. It seems that most of the ‘black’ squirrels are heterozygous for the trait so, if you look at them in bright sunlight, they appear dark dark brown. It seems on our campus there are an equal number of gray and black squirrels.”
Scientific descriptions aside, black gray squirrels are more common farther north while gray squirrels dominate southern areas in the eastern United States and Canada.
Some researchers believe that before Europeans arrived in North America, black gray squirrels were predominant throughout eastern North America because forests were old and thick and provided better cover for that color phase. But once the forests were cut, they hypothesize, gray squirrels became the dominant type throughout their range.
Another, earlier study in Canada in 1978, where black gray squirrels dominate, found that they had “significantly lower heat loss” than gray squirrels during the winter which they thought explained why black gray squirrels were common where winters were colder and there was a constant snow cover despite the fact that a black coat would not provide camouflage for them in a white world.
Native black gray squirrels live in Ontario and Quebec and northern Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Pennsylvania. But there have been so many releases of these squirrels both in the United States and England, usually courtesy of Ontario, that it is difficult to sort the naturally occurring from the released ones.
In Britain they were released at the end of the 19th century and 18 from Canada arrived at the National Zoo during Teddy Roosevelt’s presidency. Canada also sent 10 to Kent, Ohio in 1961.
Strangest of all is the so-called “Home of the Black Squirrels” out in the plains in Marysville, Kansas. Supposedly the squirrels escaped from a traveling circus or maybe a gypsy encampment in the late 1920s. Marysville even holds an annual Black Squirrel Celebration.
The black squirrels in Washington, D.C. have spread over the city, and they’ve done the same in other towns and cities where they were released. Apparently, they are safer from their predators, which are primarily birds of prey. And squirrel hunters, eager to bag a black gray squirrel, cannot shoot them in such places.
I checked a couple online sources regarding black gray squirrels in Pennsylvania and compiled a list of cities and towns where black squirrels live such as Fairmont Park in Philadelphia, the Haverford College campus, which has so many that they’ve adopted Black Squirrels as their sports mascot, and the eastern suburbs of Pittsburgh.
A.D. Plummer, who says he hunts and fishes every day in central Pennsylvania, according to the Answers section of the Field and Stream website, claimed he had never seen a black squirrel there until 2009 when he saw two in two places 30 miles apart.
This provoked several more comments over the next few years. S. Testy, who lives in Enola, Cumberland County, also in central Pennsylvania, wrote in 2009, “There’s a pak of black squirrels that live on Valley Road and North Enola Drive…I’ve seen several out at one time.”
M.J. Frazier in 2012 reported from western Pennsylvania that a small colony nested in their neighborhood and liked bird seeds but stayed away from the gray squirrels.
“The squirrels are solid black and look very kinetic as they move about,” Frazier reported. “They will not come to the feeder close to the house [which probably explains why ‘our’ black squirrel ignored our feeders], but [to] one in the yard about 30 yards away which is stocked with black oil sunflower seeds.”
Rudy Glove, writing in 2015, added “Black squirrels everywhere now.’
Well, not quite everywhere. On the HuntingPA.com website in answer to a hunter’s question about where he can find black squirrels, it looks as if the largest numbers still live in the wild across the northern tier of the commonwealth.
One hunter found black squirrels scattered in five different locations over four counties—Lycoming, Clinton, Potter and Tioga.
Another reported three blacks to one gray in Cook Forest, Clarion County, adding that one day he counted five different black squirrels.
Several were seen near Dubois in Clearfield County and a couple hunters claimed they were common near Kinzua Dam in the Allegheny National Forest. Two hunters mentioned Pike County in northeastern Pennsylvania, and another Brookville in Jefferson County near Treasure Lake.
Whether all these squirrels were coal black, brown-black, or both is not clear except for those reported by M.J. Frazier, but S. Testy does question articles that say only one gray squirrel in 10,000 is black and suspects, at least here in Pennsylvania, that that is a low estimate.