The black squirrel occurs as a melanistic subgroup of both the eastern gray squirrel and the fox squirrel. Their habitat extends throughout the Midwestern United States, in some areas of the Northeastern United States, eastern Canada, and also in the United Kingdom. The overall population of black squirrels is small when compared to that of the gray squirrel. The black fur color can occur naturally as a mutation in populations of gray squirrels, but it is rare. The rarity of the black squirrel has caused many people to admire them, and the black squirrels enjoy great affection in some places as mascots.
As a rare mutation of both the eastern gray and fox squirrel, individual black squirrels can exist wherever gray or fox squirrels live. Among eastern squirrels, gray mating pairs cannot produce black offspring. Gray squirrels have two copies of a normal pigment gene and black squirrels have either one or two copies of a mutant pigment gene. If a black squirrel has two copies of the mutant gene it will be jet black. If it has one copy of a mutant gene and one normal gene it will be brown-black. In areas with high concentrations of black squirrels, litters of mixed-color individuals are common.
The black subgroup seems to have been predominant throughout North America prior to the arrival of Europeans in the 16th century, when America's old growth forests were still abundant and thick. The black squirrel's dark color helped with better concealment from its natural predators (owls and hawks) in these very dense and shaded old growth forests. As time passed, extensive deforestation and the hunting of squirrels for their meat and pelts led to biological advantages for gray colored individuals; their light-gray color became advantageous in their newly changed habitat. Today, the black subgroup is particularly abundant in the northern part of the eastern gray squirrel's range. This is due to two main factors. Firstly, black squirrels have a considerably higher cold tolerance than that of gray squirrels. Secondly, because the northern forests are denser and thus darker, the black squirrel enjoys the advantage of better concealment when viewed from above within this dimly lit habitat.
Large natural populations of black (eastern gray) squirrels can be found throughout Ontario and in several parts of Ohio, Maryland, Michigan, Houston, Indiana, Virginia, Washington, D.C., Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesota,Pennsylvania, and Kentucky. Populations of gray squirrels in which the black subgroup is predominant can be found in these six areas as well as in smaller enclaves in Missouri, New Jersey, southern New York, Illinois, Connecticut, and California. Outside areas of North America where black squirrels occur naturally in abundance, there are several notable introduced populations of black squirrels:
In the United States, the city of Kent, Ohio developed a significant black squirrel population after ten were legally imported from Canada in February 1961 by Larry Woodell, the head groundskeeper at Kent State University. They have driven out native squirrels in many areas, though they peacefully coexist with most other rodent wildlife.
Black squirrels are well established in the Quad Cities area along the Iowa-Illinois boundary. According to one story, recounted in the book The Palmers, they were first introduced on the Rock Island Arsenal Island. Some of them then escaped by jumping across ice floes on the Mississippi River when it was frozen, and thus populated other areas in Rock Island. In Council Bluffs, Iowa, there is a sizeable population of black fox squirrels, where the animal is the town mascot. Black squirrels are also found nearby in Iowa City. Black squirrels occur in increasing abundance in the cities of Omaha and Lincoln, Nebraska, and in the surrounding areas where eastern gray squirrels are not found.
Black squirrels are abundant in Battle Creek, Michigan, and, according to legend, were first introduced there by Will Keith Kellogg, founder of the Kellogg Company, in an effort to destroy the local population of red squirrels. The story continues that this same population of squirrels was further introduced to the campus of Michigan State University by John Harvey Kellogg for the same purpose. This story was corrected by Wilbur C. "Joe" Johnson, the late chief wildlife biologist at M.S.U.'s Kellogg Biological Station near Battle Creek which includes W.K. Kellogg's former 32-acre estate at Gull Lake. Johnson, who worked at K.B.S. for 48 years, credited Dr. John Harvey Kellogg for introducing the black squirrel to the Kellogg estate during the 1930s. Johnson said he himself trapped 20 black squirrels at Gull Lake during the early 1960s at the specific request of former MSU president John A. Hannah and released them on the East Lansing campus.
Black squirrels were introduced to Stanley Park in Westfield, Massachusetts, in 1948, having been brought from Michigan as a gift to a local business man. The squirrels are thriving in the park and the city as of 2017.
They have also been recently (2016) spotted in Washington State on the northern Olympic Peninsula.
Marysville, Kansas has a notable population of black squirrels which legend claims arrived there by escaping from a travelling circus. The city of Hobbs, New Mexico attempted to introduce black squirrels from Marysville in 1973. However, the new population of black squirrels did not survive, likely having been killed by local fox squirrels shortly after their introduction.
Eighteen Canadian black squirrels were released at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., near the beginning of the 20th century during President Theodore Roosevelt's administration. Since their introduction, the population of black squirrels in and near Washington has slowly but steadily increased, and black squirrels now account for up to half of the squirrel population in certain locations, such as the grounds of the Washington National Cathedral.
Vancouver has a growing population of black squirrels after they were introduced to the Stanley Park Peninsula before 1914. The squirrels have thrived and spread throughout the Vancouver area and into Whatcom County, Washington.
Calgary also has a large population of black squirrels (mutant eastern grey squirrels), mostly descendants of escaped zoo animals from 1929. The Calgary zoo was founded in 1929 with, among other animals, 6 black squirrels donated by the Toronto Parks Department. During a massive flood which hit the city and inundated the zoo in 1929, these unusually large and aggressive Toronto black squirrels escaped and proceeded to displace the native Calgary red squirrels. As in Toronto, these squirrels are now predominant among the Calgary squirrel population.
Black squirrels can also be found in the United Kingdom, where grey squirrels were first introduced from North America at the end of the 19th century. They are concentrated in Eastern and South Eastern areas of England, but have been witnessed across the country. The origin of the UK's black individuals has been a topic of dispute, with initial research indicating that black-colored individuals are descendants of zoo escapees. Regardless of their origins, the black squirrel population in the UK continues to grow, and around the towns of Letchworth, Stevenage and Hitchin, as well as nearby villages such as Shillington and Meppershall in England, black squirrels are now as abundant as grey individuals. Black squirrels have been present and studied in Cambridgeshire since the 1990s; in the village of Girton three quarters of the squirrel population is black.
Mascot and symbol
Though black squirrels are common or predominant in many areas of North America, their overall rarity (perhaps as few as 1 in 10,000) has caused many towns, cities, colleges, and universities to take special pride in their populations of black squirrels. Several cities and towns in the United States and one in Canada make efforts to publicly promote their local populations of black squirrels.
- Detroit, Michigan, Port Huron, Michigan, and Lansing, Michigan
- Middletown, Connecticut
- Marysville, Kansas
- Westfield, Massachusetts
- Council Bluffs, Iowa
- London, Ontario
- Toronto, Ontario
- Kent, Ohio
- Glendale, Ohio
- Charleston, West Virginia
Several colleges and universities in the United States promote the black squirrel as an official or unofficial mascot:
- Haverford College where the black squirrel is the official mascot of varsity athletics
- Kent State University which each year holds a Black Squirrel Festival (located in the Risman Plaza during the second week of September) to honor the university's growing black squirrel population. It features live music, vendors and an overall tribute to the black squirrels seen throughout the campus. Beyond the festival, other businesses and organizations in Kent are named for the black squirrel, including Black Squirrel Brewing Company, Black Squirrel Radio and Black Squirrel Books, an imprint of the Kent State University Press.
- Albion College where the black squirrel has become a significant symbol on campus
- Sarah Lawrence College where the campus milkshake bar and safe-space is named for the black squirrel. The black squirrel is also used as an unofficial mascot, with the bookstore selling plush squirrels.
- The College of Wooster where a student on the official website describes an "obsession over black squirrels"  and there is a bed and breakfast nearby campus which is named after the animal.
- Augustana College (Illinois) in the Quad Cities, where ten bronze squirrels are hidden atop buildings around campus and a student film production group, Black Squirrel Productions, is named after the animal.
- Fordham University's Rose Hill campus has an abundance of black squirrels, spilling over from the neighboring Bronx Zoo which is home to a large free-roaming population.
- Princeton University's Princeton Squirrel Spotting Society often features black squirrels from around the campus on their Facebook page.
- Georgetown University where one of the club Ultimate Frisbee teams is named after the abundance of black squirrels that can be seen on campus and throughout Washington, D.C.
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