Something that I don’t think about much in my daily life are rodents. I do, however, think about the odd and the strange things that I observe. If you have spent time in the parks or outdoor areas of Washington DC you’ll notice that there is one particular part of the fauna that sticks out; the black squirrels of DC. On a trip to Niagara Falls with my wife, we saw many black squirrels in the parks above the falls. This led me to wonder if there was a connection between the two.
I know there are other parts of the country that are home to black squirrels. Marysville, Kansas, for instance, is known as Black Squirrel City and has enacted a twenty five dollar fine for harming one. Their unusual dark rodents were said to be brought there by a traveling carnival in cages and escaped from the exibit. With the abundance of our little nut-stashers on the east coast being grey it seems a mystery where these raven colored rodents came from. Oddly enough the darker are the same species as the lighter eastern grey squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis). What makes them darker is a melanistic color phase, it’s a recessive gene. It is theorized however that these black squirrels were the more abundant variety at the beginning of our country. The tree canopy was so thick at the time that the shading gave their darker look an advantage of camouflage from hawks and other predators. The trees started being cleared for housing and at the same time hunters would pick them out of the treetops for dinner. The gray phase variety suddenly had the advantage against the the pale blue sky. Their main predator had changed.
During the mid to late 1800’s reintroducing a squirrel population into city parks became a popular undertaking for city officials. Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, New York and Washington DC were all constructing public parks and it felt natural to fill them with the native wildlife. Squirrel hunting within city limits started being banned in cities, including DC in 1906.
That brings us to how a small pocket of black squirrels came to nest in our capital city. In 1902 The National Zoo received a package of 18 black phase eastern gray squirrels from the Department of Crown Lands of Ontario and in exchange they received 18 gray. A few years later in 1906 they made the same exchange again. The entire population of black squirrels that are now blanking the city and its suburbs are from these original 36.
In my research about this subject I fell down a squirrel hole on the internet finding not only black squirrel colonies but also white morph and albino colonies. Olny, Illinois has a white squirrel colony and every year in October they have a count to see how they are fairing. 88 this past year up from 75 the previous. I also found out about an ever expanding group of eastern grays that have taken over a swath of Italy after being brought there by a U.S. ambassador. The quartet escaped and have been putting a hurting on the European red squirrel habitat ever since.
If you have ever visited the nations capital there are many sites to behold. The Smithsonian museums, the International Spy museum, the Washington Monument are all amazing places to visit, however my favorite are the outside places. The National Mall, National Zoo and National Arboretum are all places where you can catch a glimpse of the famed black squirrel of DC.