Chicago Sun-Times
Stray Casts will intelligently report and observe, hopefully with a touch of wit, on daily occurrences, reports and releases related to Chicago-area outdoors from bucks to bass to birds to bugs

Wild Sunday (black hearts and squirrels) 3-16-08

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So, I'm in a tough spot. A black squirrel, a melanistic gray, has been raiding our backyard bird feeders.

On one hand, the squirrel is pretty cool. I enjoy taking a break from the computer to watch it run around our maple trying to gnaw at my suet rack.

On the other hand, my heart is charred with hate for the raiding rodents as a species. It is really just a blackened gray squirrel. And it is trying to gnaw through my suet basket.

Is it part of a plot? Lord knows we live in paranoid times. And black squirrels are becoming more common.

My friend Joel Greenberg, author of the must-have book, A Natural History of the Chicago Region, once cracked wise, as he is apt to do, with me when I asked him about the spread of black squirrels. ``I don't have a specific response except to say that black is an increasingly popular color among gray squirrels. Black gray squirrels used to be restricted to the North Shore (Wilmette north to Lake Forest) but now are showing up more widely.''

The IDNR's John Cole agreed more black squirrels are being seen, but said, ``But I don't know why, or what causes that.''

In response to a reader's question about bleached tail squirrels, Joel Brown, the squirrel expert at UIC, told me, ``A wide variety of color morphs occur for gray squirrels in the Midwest and up into Ontario (the melanistic morph being the most common and conspicuous). This 'bleached' tail morph seems to be widespread among urban gray squirrels but is rarer than the melanistic morph.''

That's stuff is interesting, but it doesn't end my battles with the backyard beasts.

I am not alone in my skirmishes with squirrels.

Donald F. Hoffmeister in his Mammals of Illinois, famously noted, ``One unique feature of gray squirrels is adapting quickly and thoroughly to urban conditions and situations.''

And also accurately noted, ``They are to some an interesting part of the environment to be pampered and appreciated; to others, a pest to be eliminated.''

Readers have long been sending me advice on how to keep eastern gray squirrels, Sciurus carolinensis, from my bird feeders.

Back in 2004, Don Anderson and Rachel Pildis of Oak Park, were the first readers to suggest using pepper-laced bird seed sold by Squirrel Free Inc.

Go to www.hotbirdseed.com or find it stocked at many Frank's Nursery & Crafts or Wal-Marts around the area.

Does it work? So-so. I really find that I just live with certain amount of pillaging from the squirrels.

In reality, my battle with backyard squirrels is more like poking fun at Cubs fans, it's an easy target.

I do try to accept them (I mean the squirrels).

I've even left Greenberg drag me around to famous squirrel places like Downstate Olney to see the multitude of white squirrels in their town park.

And he is the one he tipped me off that Island Park in Momence is one of the few places where you have a chance to see red, gray and fox squirrels at the same time.

So far I have seen all three there, but never at the same time. Do I really want to? Yes, even marauding rodents have their uses.

For those really into a love/hate with squirrels, Brown is doing some neat stuff with his Project Squirrel, even collecting citizen data.

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3 Comments

I am vindicated! Walking my dog last week, I saw what I thought was a black cat scurry across the street, for which of course we took up the chase. However, when it climbed up the neighbor's tree, I was really surprised that it was indeed a black squirrel. Oh course the better half did the usual eye rolling when I tried to tell her what we chased. Anyway, this sighting was over here in Highland IN. I have noticed an increase in squirrel population this year, so maybe the law of genetics caught up in my area. Unfortunatly, have not seen it since. Thanks.

Glad to be of service to society.

I've been meaning to get the digital camera fired up, and your mention of Island Park to see the red squirrel has me chomping at the bit. To think they were right in my backyard the whole time.
Perhaps I can catch all three? That would be something.
Another species on my radar screen this year is to photograph a red fox in the Kankakee River Valley. That will really depend on luck.

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This page contains a single entry by Dale Bowman published on March 16, 2008 9:29 AM.

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