White Squirrels – Our Mysterious Visitors
Drive down into the Ballardvale neighborhood of Andover and you might see a flash of white streak across the road in front of you. Or if you look carefully while taking a walk through Andover’s West Parish Garden Cemetery, you might be lucky enough to spot one scampering up a tree. With thick white fur and a full luxurious tail, these unusual little animals are something to behold. Since spotting my first white squirrel in Andover a couple of years ago, I’ve made it a mission to seek them out, and I’ve found that the town has developed its own colony of these little animals. In just one day, I photographed more than 10 within the range of a few blocks.
During the past couple of summers, I would park my car in Ballardvale and walk through the neighborhood with a friend. We would spot one white squirrel near a bird feeder, then another up in a pine tree. There seemed to be one or two around every house we passed. They act like any squirrel does: hunting for nuts, climbing trees, checking under bird feeders for fallen seeds. The only difference is their fur, which comes in varying shades of cream and white, rather than the gray we are accustomed to seeing.
While the contrast of the squirrels’ white coats with the green grass is stunning, I wondered about their visibility to predators. In nature, successful animal populations tend to blend into their surroundings. Gray squirrels’ fur matches the tree trunks and fallen leaves in the New England woods where they live. A white animal stands out against native vegetation, making it more visible to hawks, owls and foxes.
While more red and black squirrels have made appearances in our region in recent years, the white squirrel is a true anomaly. Related to gray squirrels, these squirrels are not albinos. The scientific name for their color variation is “leucism,” which is caused by a recessive gene that produces the partial loss of pigmentation in an animal, bird or human. Albinos typically have red eyes and pink skin, but leucistic variants have normally pigmented eyes and skin. Leucistic animals can also be partially or seasonally white: Polar bears are leucistic year-round, while snowshoe hares, minks and ptarmigans turn white in the winter.
While Andover seems to have a growing colony of white squirrels, there are other places in North America that call themselves “Home of the White Squirrels” and boast truly large populations. Most notable are Olney, Ill., Marionville, Mo., Brevard, N.C., Kenton, Tenn., and Exeter, Ontario, Canada. The white squirrels in these locales seem to be a mix of albinos, whites and mixed colors. Brevard’s squirrels also have a distinct dark cap, and sometimes a dark stripe going down their backs. In some of these places the white squirrels are protected by law against trapping and are a great source of civic pride.
Though it is commonly thought that a white animal would be more visible to predators in this area, there is also a theory in the scientific community that predators may not recognize a white squirrel as prey and will ignore it. Only time will tell if the Andover colony grows and thrives, but for now, we can enjoy the sight of these mysterious little visitors.
An amateur ecologist, Deb Venuti has been studying animals, their habits and habitats, for many years. Through her wildlife photography she hopes to bring awareness of the hidden lives that surround us and are integral to our planet’s survival.
For More Information:
White Squirrel Shop, Orney, Ill.
White Squirrel Video
White Squirrel Festival, Brevard, N.C.
Brevard College White Squirrel Page