UPDATE, March 2012: I finally succeed in spotting one of New York City’s lovely black squirrels. Not in Central Park but in Washington Square Park: Black Squirrel in NYC.
A fellow nature lover recently told me of seeing a black squirrel repeatedly in the northern end of Central Park.
The squirrel usually seen in NYC parks is the Eastern gray squirrel, Sciurus carolinensus. Eastern grays love hardwood forests that provide them with acorns, berries, bark, insects and tree buds. In the old days, before the virgin forests of the east were cleared, it was said that a squirrel could travel the entire east coast in the treetops, without ever touching ground.
And travel Gray squirrels did, and sometimes, perhaps, still do. Audubon and other early American naturalists called it the Migratory squirrel for its mass migrations through the trees, which Charles Joseph Latrobe described in 1811:
“A countless multitude of squirrels, obeying some great and universal impulse, which none can know but the Spirit that gave them being, left their reckless and gambolling life, and their ancient places of retreat in the north, and were seen pressing forward by tens of thousands in a deep and sober phalanx to the South …”
Other nineteenth century writers describe Gray squirrel migrations that lasted up to four weeks and involved hundreds of thousands of animals.
Today’s Gray squirrels live in whatever wilderness remains to us, while also thriving in the suburbs and in urban parks. Black squirrels, according to most researchers, are a melanistic color morph, or variation, of the Gray squirrel, the color resulting from an excess of melanin, a dark pigmentation. Essentially, black squirrels are simply black Grays.
I’d heard of black squirrel populations in other parts of NYC, including Union Square Park and the grounds of Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village. City parks can be like islands, separated by streets instead of water, where inbreeding leads to swift manifestation of unusual genetic traits, including melanism. Was a nascent population of black squirrels emerging in Central Park? I decided to go squirrel hunting.
The morning glowed with sunlight that failed to warm.
Despite the bitter cold, someone appeared to be meditating on a point of land that jutted out into the still-unfrozen Pool, the little pond at 101st Street.
A mixed flock of ducks paddled about, and a few came over to see if I was offering food. (I wasn’t.)
Across the Pool, Buffleheads, a particularly adorable duck species, dove and surfaced, flashing their big white heads and sides.
Buffleheads, like scaup, mergansers and canvasbacks, are diving ducks, capable of swimming underwater to feed, while Mallards, like American wigeons, teals and shovelers, are dabbling ducks, tipping up their tails to feed with their heads underwater. Mallard ducklings regularly dive underwater to avoid predators, although duckling predators also include water dwellers, like snapping turtles and fish.
But I digress. A good walk makes for many digressions. I resumed my hunt for the black squirrel, heading south through the park all the way down to 89th Street.
Along the way, I saw a huge flock of Common grackles. (Birder friends, these are grackles and not some kind of blackbird, yes?)
The flock was accompanied – or, perhaps, infiltrated – by a solitary bluejay.
I saw perfect squirrel hideouts.
I saw squirrel dreys, or nests, including this one high in a tree.
And, inevitably, I saw squirrels. Just a few, due to the cold, and all of them normal Grays, like this little fellow in the fork of a tree.
So I’m still looking for my first black squirrel.
When I returned home, I discovered that while I was traipsing the Park’s north end, a black squirrel had been hanging out down at the southern end, near Wollman Rink.
Meanwhile, I’ve learned from a favorite naturalist in England that across the Big Pond, in the U.K., black squirrels are a source of serious controversy. All Gray squirrels are considered an invasive species there, as they drive out the native red squirrel population. But there’s something about black Grays that … well, more on black squirrels in a future post. Meanwhile, do let me know if you see any unusual squirrels around your neck of the woods.