Most everyone has seen a gray, and glimpsed or at least heard of a red, but have you ever seen a black squirrel?!
Chances are if you have ever visited Niagara Falls State Park or any of the neighboring parks in the region you’ve seen what at first glance appears to be the shadow of a gray squirrel. That is, until it moves and starts chattering. Of the many types of squirrels in New York State, the black squirrel is not mentioned in most field guides but it most closely resembles the size and shape of the gray squirrel. It also eats the same diet of seeds and nuts with some fruits, fungi, and the occasional insect mixed in.
There is a good reason for the similarities in appearance and habits as they are, in fact, the same species. The black squirrel is a color phase of the Eastern Gray Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis), also known as a melanistic variant. Unlike species that change color seasonally, like the long-tailed weasel, these rodents retain the dark coloration their entire lives. The black fur is caused by a genetic mutation that is passed from generation to generation.
During winters in Western New York the ground is normally covered in a layer of snow and ice that would make the darker black squirrel easier prey for predators such as coyote, owl and domestic cats. However, a darker coat means more absorption of heat energy from the sun and so less energy used by the animal itself. In the end, the two seem to cancel each other out and gray and black squirrels hold equal dominance around the Falls.
These adorable acorn gatherers garner much attention from the visitors who come to see the beauty of Niagara Falls, hike the Gorge Trail at Whirlpool and Devils Hole State Parks, or ice skate at DeVeaux Woods State Park.
As to when the variation first appeared in the area around the falls, it is largely unknown. Though there are historic records of black squirrels in the new world, there are none specifically referencing our area. And so, we are left with the urban legends. So the story goes, as the locals tell it, there were no black squirrels in Niagara Falls USA in the early 1800s, but there were across the river in Canada. When the first suspension bridge was built across the Niagara River, with the help of a young boy and his kite, the avenue was open and the black squirrels crossed the river to the USA. Whether the story is true, or whether it was simply over time that the genetic variation showed up in Niagara Falls too, we may never know. But when next you visit, make sure to keep an eye out for this not so common creature.
Post by Angelina Weibel, OPRHP, Environmental Educator, Niagara Region