A Squirrel In Every Color

Most everyone has seen a gray, and glimpsed or at least heard of a red, but have you ever seen a black squirrel?!

Image 1
An eye-catching squirrel at Whirlpool State Park with all black fur; Photo by M. Drahms OPRHP

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.

Image 2
A bounty of nuts and acorns are found by squirrels at State Parks along the Niagara Gorge. Photo by M. Drahms OPRHP

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.

Image_Many Squirrels
Both colors of Gray Squirrel can be seen throughout the year in parks along the Niagara Gorge. Photos by A. Weibel & M. Drahms OPRHP

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.

A lithograph created by Charles Parsons of Charles Ellet’s footbridge (completed 1848) commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Charles_Parson_-_Niagara_Falls_Suspension_Bridge.jpg

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

13 thoughts on “A Squirrel In Every Color”

  1. Stuyvesant Town in NYC (14-20th sts, east of 1st ave, is full of both grey AND BLACK squirrels.

    1. Hi Amy – thanks for your note. Yes there are white eastern gray squirrels. They are white either because they are an albino or because they are a genetic variation of the gray color.
      Thanks for reading Nature Times!

  2. We’ve got the Black’s and the grey’s and the little reds that looked like chipmunks without the stripes down the back when babies an the black is a little girl an her name is pudgy I feed them well an she knows her name an comes in a running.From Dolgeville NY

  3. We have had 2 or more visit our feeders here in Frederick, MD, everyday! But they don’t stay in our yard & build their nests — when they finish feeding, they go back across the community park which borders our back yard. We also have a grey one that has white front feet and the entire front is white. It always comes running when we are out to get some peanuts which my husband feeds them. They , too go back over the park to stay.
    We also have a what we guessed to be a mother & two young raccoons who started visiting our deck each night for hand outs back in early December. Since then they have gradually started to come separately.
    We have some foxes that come each night. We could really see them when the snow was on the ground. You can hear them bark at night. It is not like a dog’s bark.
    We also have some owls that hoot at night —- we haven’t seen them, but some one in our community has taken pictures and posted them,
    We feel truly blessed to live in one of the largest cities in Maryland and have deer and other animals frequently visit us. Oh yes! We also have bear and coyotes visit as well! Thanks for listening! 🤗

  4. We just returned from a trip to Niagara Falls and were very happy to see a black squirrel in the park.

    We watched as he rummage around in a trash can and found a discarded chicken wing. He took it into the bushes and seemed to manly be interested in the breading.

  5. You can see black squirrels in Mt. Vernon which is just north of the Bronx. It is said that they started to appear after P.T. Barnum (Barnum & Bailey Circus) who lived in Mt. Vernon, brought a shipment of some sort from Germany.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.