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Rare Black Squirrels Used To Be Common

a black squirrel sits on a fence
Renee Wilde
There is a large population of black squirrels in Jamestown, Ohio.

Many Ohioans are familiar with black squirrels thanks to the large population on the campus of Kent State University. They are the descendants of ten squirrels brought there from Canada in 1961 by the head groundskeeper. But, in Greene County, Ohio, we host a large a population of these rare black squirrels

On this episode of County Lines, producer Renee Wilde goes looking for squirrels. 

Greene County Naturalist Jared Merriman
Credit Renee Wilde / WYSO
Greene County Naturalist Jared Merriman is familiar with black squirrels at work and at home.

Local legend in Jamestown has it that decades ago two residents paid to have a pair of black squirrels trapped while they were on a hunting trip in Michigan. And then, those two squirrels bred, and now Jamestown has its own small black Squirrel colony.

Today I’m on the bike path that runs through town with Jared Merriman, a naturalist with Green County Parks and Trails, looking for the descendants of those black squirrels.

Jared is very familiar with the rare black squirrels, not just as a naturalist. He has a home in Jamestown where there is a black squirrel nesting behind his house. Jared says that black squirrels can be a variety of either grey or fox squirrels that have a genetic condition called melanism.

“It’s a mutation that in the grey squirrel is because some of its DNA is missing,” Jared says, “That mutation can then be passed on to its children. So two black squirrels that share that mutation will have babies, all those babies will be black. If a black and a grey squirrel have babies, it makes a very dark brown almost auburn haired squirrel.”

Ohio and Ontario, Canada have the largest populations of these rare black squirrels in North America, but there was a time when they were actually the predominant squirrel in the Northern US.

Jared says that the black squirrels are native, “and there’s some speculation that when Europeans first started settling Northern half of North America that most of the squirrels were black, because it is better camouflage in heavily forested areas. But as we cleared the land the grey squirrels became better suited and so they took over, and now that we’re reforesting the land again, we’re seeing black squirrels push south again.“

Jared says large populations of black squirrels can also be found in the United Kingdom, “There have been a lot of relocations, and there’s a huge population of black Squirrels in three counties in the UK, but those squirrels in the UK were originally North American squirrels that got taken to the UK.”

Many towns across the US have tried to artificially introduce black squirrels, but those populations don’t always take off the way they have in Jamestown and Kent State. The black fur allows the squirrels to retain heat, so they are better suited for colder climates.

“That’s why Michigan has so many,” Jared says, “ because those upper reaches of Michigan still have all that forrest and it’s still adaptive for them there, but this far south it’s kind of a toss up.”

We don’t see any on the bike path, but when we walk back to Jared’s house in town, one is hanging out in a tree in his backyard. The black squirrel barks at a neighboring grey squirrel. An article in the Xenia Gazette from the 1970’s mentions a father and son seeing the rare Jamestown black squirrels while traveling through town. Modern travelers that keep a sharp eye out, might just experience some of those unique squirrels, too.

Jared agrees,”They kind of become something that people become infatuated with, because they are new and exciting, and not just the same old squirrel over and over again.”

County Lines is made possible by a grant from Ohio Humanities. 

Renee Wilde was part of the 2013 Community Voices class, allowing her to combine a passion for storytelling and love of public radio. She started out as a volunteer at the radio station, creating the weekly WYSO Community Calendar and co-producing Women’s Voices from the Dayton Correctional Institution - winner of the 2017 PRINDI award for best long-form documentary. She also had the top two highest ranked stories on the WYSO website in one year with Why So Curious features. Renee produced WYSO’s series County Lines which takes listeners down back roads and into small towns throughout southwestern Ohio, and created Agraria’s Grounded Hope podcast exploring the past, present and future of agriculture in Ohio through a regenerative lens. Her stories have been featured on NPR, Harvest Public Media and Indiana Public Radio.