A squirrel’s large bushy tail is a very important appendage. The tail is used for balance when walking on electric wires and small tree branches and it is also used in communication. When a squirrel is scolding a cat its tail is flicking as fast as it is chattering. It will also flick its tail like a silent alarm to warn other squirrels of danger. In a group the tail is also used to show dominance over other squirrels. The Alpha holds its tail high, while the more submissive ones carry their tails lower. The tail is also used for insulation from the cold and as a parachute to soften a fall from a tree.
Mrs. Dotty Compton noticed something unusual about the three baby squirrels that were born this spring in the large maple tree in her front yard at the corner of Iowa and Grove Streets in Perry. Their tails were white but the other markings are typical of fox squirrels.
I spoke to Professor Jim Pease, Extension Wildlife Biologist at Iowa State University, about this unusual trait. He said the animals were partially albino or leucistic. It is not a common occurrence, but he has seen this a few times in the past.
He thought the squirrels would probably lose this trait and develop normal coloration when they became adults and grow their dense winter fur. In a couple of years they would look like normal fox squirrels- if they lived.
Their chances of survival are not as good as normally colored squirrels because the white tail is going to be a “signal flag” that will attract predators such as owls and hawks. Their white tails will reduce their natural camouflage.
Even normally colored squirrels have a low survival rate in cities because of automobiles. Young that were born this spring are now being forced out of the nest as their mother prepares for her second brood that will be born in late summer. As the young squirrels start to live on their own they don’t get a second chance to learn about cars. When they are frightened they have a bad habit of going back to the place of last known safety. This is why they will be three-fourths of the way across a street and then run back in the direction they came from, often into the path of an oncoming car.
Several years ago I visited the small town Kenton, Tennessee where an estimated 400 white albino squirrels live. Residents claim that the original animals escaped from a “Gypsy Circus” troupe in 1869 and there has been a continuous population of them ever since.
Three other towns in the USA also have colonies of white squirrels: Marionville, Missouri, Brevard, North Carolina, and Olney, Illinois. Brevard has a White Squirrel Festival every year in early September. The city of Olney’s police officers wear an embroidered shoulder patch with a white squirrel and there are stiff fines for injuring one of the squirrels.
Mrs. Compton’s squirrels are a natural mutation that will probably disappear, but if they are lucky enough to survive and multiply, Perry could be known as the town with white-tailed squirrels.
Last week’s article stated Perry’s water had excessive “Nitrates”, however the column should have said “Nitrites”. The columnist regrets the error.