Don Hellmann of Leathers Road in Ft. Mitchell loves to feed the squirrels. “I feed the squirrels every day and there are always one or two black squirrels around,” said Don. Whereas Don enjoys watching “his” squirrels, he’s also preserving his father’s memory.
Don’s father, Norbert Hellmann, also enjoyed the squirrels at his home on Princeton Ave. in Ft. Mitchell’s Sunnymede subdivision. Norbert would frequently visit his aunt and uncle in the Detroit, Michigan area where he noticed an abundance of black squirrels. He trapped two black squirrels from Detroit and released them at his Ft. Mitchell residence. His black squirrels thrived and bred with resident gray squirrels and produced more squirrels, gray and black. Now more than 30 years later the black squirrels we see in Ft. Mitchell, Lakeside Park, Edgewood, Crestview Hills, and beyond can be traced to the two black squirrels that Norbert released. Norbert passed away in 1977, though his legacy lives on with our many resident black squirrels.
The black squirrels being seen around town are really eastern gray squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis) with a genetic mutation that causes excessive pigmentation or “melanism.” Biologists estimate that nationwide about one of every 10,000 gray squirrels is the black mutant.
Black-phase gray squirrels are by no means a genetic mistake. Gray squirrels in New England, Pennsylvania, Michigan and other northern states were almost all black before the days of early European settlers. The black fur more readily absorbs heat from the sun’s rays providing warmth during cold northern winters; equally important, the black coloration is a defense mechanism.
Dr. Bill Hamilton, a biologist with Penn State New Kensington, explained; “Early northern forests were very primeval. They were very shaded, very dense and dark. It’s said that they were so dense that a squirrel could go from one end of the state to the other without ever touching the ground. The undisturbed North American population of gray squirrels was, according to historical records from the 1600’s and early 1700’s, predominately made up of black-phase gray squirrels due to the effectiveness of the black coloration as an aid in hiding from avian predators such as hawks or owls.”
As Europeans settled the New World, forests were cleared for farmland and squirrels were commonly hunted. Dr. Hamilton added, “As the continuous forests of Pennsylvania and on westward were broken up and the human hunting and bounty pressures on squirrels were increased, the black form of the gray squirrel, even though it is the genetically dominant variant, became less and less abundant. The black squirrel was very clearly outlined against the light colored sky when humans hunted squirrels from the forest floor. This human hunting pressure apparently favored the mixed, “gray” coloration that even today predominates in most North American populations.”
Squirrels were not only a food source for early settlers; they were perceived as a serious threat to crops. Nearly all states in the northeast had bounties on squirrels. Dr. Hamilton further explained, “In 1749 the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania put a 3-cent per skin bounty on gray squirrels to try to reduce the population. Over 640,000 pelts were turned in. In 1749 dollars, the outlay by Pennsylvania was huge, nearly bankrupting the state. In 1807 Ohio tried to reduce their squirrel population but also keep their state budget in tact by requiring each taxpayer to turn in squirrel pelts with their taxes in proportion to their tax bill. Each taxpayer had to turn in between 10 and 100 squirrel skins.”
Intense hunting pressures in northern states caused the black-phase squirrel to mutate to the now common gray color in a relatively short period of time. “The impact on gray squirrels was a classic example of natural selection that can take place over a period of only decades,” said Dr. Hamilton.
Times have changed and black squirrels are now revered with larger populations in Princeton, N.J., Galesburg, IL, New Hartford, CT, Detroit and Lansing, MI. In Marysville, Kansas City officials passed legislation protecting the black squirrel and making it the Official Town Mascot. “It has the freedom to trespass on all city property, immunity from traffic regulations and the first pick of all black walnuts growing within the city.” Beware when driving through “Black Squirrel City” as the little nut-cruncher has the right-of-way on all streets, alleys and railroad crossings. Harm one and you’ll be assessed a $25.00 fine.
It could be worse. In Olney, IL where there is an isolated pocket of several hundred white albino squirrels, there is up to a $750.00 fine to any motorist who hits one………..ouch!
Visit Penn State New Kensington’s website for information on a variety of wildlife species at www.nk.psu.edu/naturetrail.