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Sunday, September 20, 2020

Western’s unofficial mascot

Local black squirrels turn heads as they appear frequently on campus

“Startled squirrel” by Richard_Carter is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

By James Ellis

Bellingham’s iconic black squirrels have bounded into our hearts as a sort of unofficial mascot, showing us where we are and distinguishing the city from the rest of Washington. Would it tarnish their reputation to say we merely adopted these ebony idols?

Our beloved ninja squirrels are actually a melanistic morph of the Eastern gray Squirrel, otherwise identical save their black coat. As the name suggests, Eastern gray squirrels are native to the eastern and midwestern U.S., and populations of their black variants have found homes in Ontario and Ohio in addition to Bellingham. 

The city of Vancouver archives indicate the Vancouver Park Board solicited U.S. cities for gray squirrels to ornament Stanley Park, which they received in the early 1900s from either New York or Pennsylvania. The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife website states the Eastern Gray squirrel was introduced in Washington in the early 1900s as well, which almost certainly means our city squirrels hail from our neighbors to the north.

People often introduce foreign species to a new area to fill a practical need, achieve an aesthetic or simply for nostalgia. Eastern gray squirrels are hardy, adaptable and most importantly cute, which make them uniquely suited for urban environments. 

“Eastern gray squirrels have no problem around people,” said Robert Waddell, district wildlife biologist at the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. “Much like deer, they can even thrive in an urban environment in some cases.”

The most logical natural theory for their prevalence here would be the founder effect, according to Fairhaven professor John Bower. This theory suggests the small number of squirrels introduced to the area would overrepresent certain physical characteristics in the gene pool, and shape the growing population in a way that may not reflect the species as a whole. 

“It’s a rare mutation,” Bower said. “If you have a population of gray squirrels, it’s going to be very rare that one of them will have the mutation to be black.” 

In this case, if our perpetually overcast skies tend to hide the sun and darken our forests, black squirrels would have a competitive advantage with better heat retention and camouflage, Bower said.

“I’m a bird expert, and the birds out here are darker,” Bower said. “Even if they’re in the same species as the birds in the east. Song sparrows in the northwest are darker overall than song sparrows in the east.”

Bower emphasized that scientists continue to debate these theories regarding Eastern gray squirrels because they haven’t yet conducted studies to corroborate them. The Washington  Department of Fish and Wildlife likewise focuses its efforts on local and endangered species, and the Eastern gray is neither.

“They’re a nonnative species, so we just don’t do anything with them as a department,” Waddell said. “There’s no attempt to manage these species, or try to get a population estimate.” 

Fairhaven professor of natural history John Tuxill moved to Bellingham in 2006, and said he could count on one hand the number of times he saw a black squirrel growing up on the east coast. Tuxill was concerned for the populations of native squirrel populations, namely the Western gray and Douglas, but said Eastern gray squirrels are not to blame. 

Our native squirrels are more selective with their respective habitats and prefer a level of seclusion and forest density that an urban setting cannot provide, both Tuxill and Waddell explained. 

“In ecological terms, they occupy a niche in our residential neighborhoods that no other mammal is likely to occupy, as far as we know,” Tuxill said. “If we removed all the Eastern grays, I’m not convinced that habitat would be populated by Douglas squirrels, for instance.”

    With free rein over our neighborhoods, Eastern grays almost never compete with native species, according to Waddell. Urban development and habitat loss are the primary factors behind the waning populations of our local rodents, and both Tuxill and Waddell emphasized the importance of environmental restoration to protect Douglas and Western gray squirrels. 

“You only find [Western grays] in specific habitats, where native Garry oak [Oregon white oak] trees remain,” Tuxill said. “One of the reasons they’re so scarce now is because they were historically maintained by Coast Salish peoples for the plants that occur there, including some really important food plants.”

Our black squirrels may not distinguish Whatcom County from the rest of the world, but they own our streets and look cool doing it, so we can appreciate them all the same.   

“At this point, we’re probably stuck with them,” Waddell said. 

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