Although more or less a typical rodent, black squirrels are a source of myth, legend, and local pride among some of the communities they overrun.
Entrepreneurs from communities with a large black squirrel population have merchandized the black squirrel image, with black squirrel mugs, t-shirts, and sweatshirts available for sale.
They are a popular topic for bloggers and have been mentioned more than once by columnists for The Lincoln County News.
Some scientists have devoted their careers to studying the proliferation of the small fuzzy creatures. There is dissension in the scientific community, however, as to where the black squirrel, which is now present throughout the United States and Europe, originated.
In Lincoln County, black squirrel sightings are occurring with increased frequency. “I will admit that I have received more calls this year about black squirrels than in any other year,” said Maine Department Inland Fisheries & Wildlife Regional Biologist Keel Kemper.
For Kemper, the science of the black squirrel does not support its mystique. “All the ones I’ve heard people talk about are a black-color phase of gray squirrels,” Kemper said.
“These are still gray squirrels,” he said. “They just have this gene that’s expressing itself. As they mate, the gene spreads around.”
Where the gene came from and how it was introduced to the gray squirrel population in Maine were questions Kemper could not answer.
Residents of Westfield, Mass, assert the answer can be found in the history of their small city, sandwiched between the Springfield metropolitan area and the Berkshire mountains. Black squirrels have been coined a “Westfield phenomenon” by a Westfield nonprofit and local stores have black squirrel apparel on display.
Westfield native and historian James Ring Adams has been fascinated by black squirrels since his youth, he said. Adams still vividly remembers a grade school field trip to the Springfield Museum of Natural History where Westfield’s place at the epicenter of the black squirrel spread throughout New England was solidified.
The black squirrel was first brought to Westfield from Michigan in 1948, according to the Stanley Park webpage. Stanley Park is a private park, run by a nonprofit, where the black squirrels were initially released.
Sales managers of Stanhome Inc., a pioneer of the direct-sales industry, spotted the black squirrel while at a conference in Michigan. Two black squirrels were brought back to Westfield as a gift for the company’s founder, Frank Stanley Beveridge. Beveridge was also the founder of Stanley Park.
According to the travel guide book “Weird Michigan,” black squirrels were brought to Michigan from Europe by Will Keith Kellogg, founder of the Kellogg Company, in an attempt to destroy the local red squirrel population in Battle Creek, Mich.
Black squirrels are now common in the Midwest, Kemper said. “There are some city parks out there where these things are rampant,” Kemper said.
According to the Stanley Park webpage, Westfield’s original two black squirrels were kept in cages, did not adapt well to their new environment, and eventually died.
The sales managers tried again, returning to Michigan and bringing six black squirrels back to Westfield with them. The black squirrels were allowed to roam free in the park and soon became, “an established tenant of Westfield,” the webpage said.
“It was a gene that began to spread,” Adams said. “I can still remember the exhibit that showed how quickly it (the gene) spread from Westfield to New Haven and other parts of Connecticut.” Adams was excited to learn black squirrels were beginning to make an appearance in Maine.
“If there’s a squirrel in Lincoln County, it must be part of the continuation of that spread,” he said.
While eager to claim New England’s black squirrel population as a cultural contribution of Westfield, Mass, Adams did note there have been black squirrel sightings in historical documents dating back to the 1700s.
According to Adams, “A History of Virginia,” published in 1705, listed black squirrels as a species indigenous to the area.
The Black Squirrel Project is a scientific study on the geographic range of black squirrels in the United Kingdom, conducted by the United Kingdom’s Anglia Ruskin University. The black squirrel was first spotted in the United Kingdom in 1912, according to the project.
Scientists working on the project believe the black squirrel now present in the United Kingdom originated in North America.
While there is dissension over the origin of the black squirrel in the scientific community, there is agreement the black squirrel is a gray squirrel with a gene that causes it to grow a black coat.
“It’s melanism,” Kemper said. “People know about albinos, this is just the other end of the color spectrum. They (Black squirrels) are not their own species. It’s just another color phase.”
According to Kemper, people have reported black squirrels are more aggressive than gray squirrels. However, Kemper is unsure if there is any validity to the theory. “They’re squirrels,” Kemper said. “All squirrels are aggressive.”
(Editor’s note: Westfield historian James Ring Adams is a paternal relation to LCN reporter Abigail Adams.)