Speaking of Nature: Identifying an unusual critter: And an invitation for readers to give it a name

This red squirrel has a condition called leucism, which is a partial loss of pigmentation. An albino squirrel would have red eyes.

This red squirrel has a condition called leucism, which is a partial loss of pigmentation. An albino squirrel would have red eyes. PHOTO BY BILL DANIELSON


For the Gazette

Published: 06-18-2024 10:53 AM

I first saw this curious little animal on June 1. It was a beautiful day outside, but the cottonwood tree that grows next to my deck was in full seed-dispersal mode and sitting outside was not really an option. Imagine a snowstorm, but the flakes of snow are sticky tufts of spider webs that are floating in the air and sticking to everything that they touch. They get in your hair, they stick to your clothes and sitting with an uncovered drink is impossible.

Rather than sitting outside and observing nature, I decided to spend some time up in my office where I could work on cataloging and organizing my past observations. This isn’t a penalty because I have two big windows that look westward across the side of my house that is usually left alone. This is where the eastern bluebirds are nesting in Box #21 and a pair of tree swallows is nesting right next door in Box #23. I get to watch the parents come and go without disturbing them from my high perch.

I was in the middle of loading almanac data into my 2024 journal when a stray movement caught my eye. South of the nest boxes, at the edge of a stand of white pines, there was something moving in the grass. What made this strange was the fact that the moving thing was white. What could that possibly be? Once my eyes locked onto the moving thing it was obvious that I was looking at a mammal of some sort. What wasn’t immediately obvious was the identity of this mammal. After all, what mammals in this area are white?

Given the size of the creature there were really only two or three possibilities. It was either a weasel, or it was some sort of squirrel. The reason that I thought it might be a weasel is because these little mammals have the habit of changing colors in the winter. In the summertime they are brown and in the winter they turn white. I thought it was possible that I was looking at a weasel that was a little late in changing colors, but the tail was all wrong. This animal had a large, puffy squirrel tail, so I had to switch gears.

Then I got lucky and the animal moved into some open grass that had just been mowed. Now, with a clear view, I could see that this was actually a red squirrel (Tamiasciurushudsonicus). The fact that it was mostly white could only be explained by a condition known as “Leucism,” which is similar to albinism. In leucism an animal experiences a partial loss of pigmentation on parts of the body. The fact that there were a few patches of the “red” fur here and there was a good diagnostic key, but I got a much better view of this same individual more than a week later when it visited the feeders on my deck.

This time the squirrel was up close and I was able to take some good photographs as it munched on seeds that I had intended for the local birds. From a distance of about 11 feet I could see that the squirrel had normal dark eyes and a right arm that was mostly correct in color. The rest of the squirrel’s fur was a frosty white. Had the squirrel been a true albino it would have had no red fur and its eyes would have been a pinkish-red.

In the past I have regaled you with stories about the red squirrels that live in my yard. I have discussed their vibrant personalities and I have lamented the fact that I am often held hostage by their sassy, oversized personalities. This particular squirrel was no exception. In fact, this squirrel’s appearance was so unusual that it seemed to strike terror in the hearts of any other animal that came close to it. The birds didn’t seem to know what this strange animal was and the other squirrels were content to keep their distance. No one wanted to mess with this odd duck.

Since this squirrel is so distinctive in it’s appearance I will be able to monitor its comings and goings with great ease. I shall be able to get to know this one more than the others because I will be able to recognize it. All I need now is a name. Before I even hint at what I might be thinking, I’d like to hear from you. What would be a good name for this unique individual? Send me an email with your suggestions and, if there are several votes for the same name, then that will be the moniker that I shall use.

Bill Danielson has been a professional writer and nature photographer for 27 years. He has worked for the National Park Service, the US Forest Service, the Nature Conservancy and the Massachusetts State Parks and he currently teaches high school biology and physics. For more in formation visit his website at www.speakingofnature.com, or go to Speaking of Nature on Facebook.