White Squirrels: Truth or Tale?
It may sound like the start of a science fiction novel, but white squirrels are no myth. Though colonies of populations of white squirrels are somewhat rare, North Carolina is host to two such locations—the most notable being Brevard. Only about a dozen other cities in the United States can claim being home to white squirrel colonies. “Most people that come here think it’s a joke and that we don’t really have white squirrels,” says Madrid Zimmerman, executive director of Heart of Brevard. “We have to convince them that we didn’t just make it up.”
So how did the white squirrels of Brevard come to be? Well, that story is a little more fantastical. The story says they arrived by way of a carnival accident. According to Barbara Mull Lang, two white squirrels were caught by a Mr. Black of Madison, Fla. in 1949 when a carnival truck carrying these unique creatures overturned near his home. Black then passed the squirrels along to H.H. Mull, Lang’s uncle, who later gave the squirrels to her. She attempted to breed them, but wasn’t successful. After she left home in 1951, one of the squirrels escaped, and so the other was let go to join its mate. Once in the wild, the squirrels began breeding, and soon there was a rapidly growing population in Transylvania County.
Brevard’s white squirrels all have similar markings—a white body with a pigmented head patch, shoulder saddle and dorsal stripe, and dark eyes. Though a breed of white squirrel does exist, the white squirrels in Brevard are thought to be a color variation of the Eastern Gray Squirrel. “They are simply another coat color variant in a species that already has quite a bit of variation,” says Bob Glesener, research director of the White Squirrel Research Institute. “As evidence that Brevard’s white squirrels are simply a color variant of the Eastern Gray Squirrel, I like to point out that when a white squirrel is foraging on the ground and is threatened by a predator or human, it darts to the nearest tree trunk and does a ‘spread eagle.’ This is appropriate for a squirrel with a dark coat color, but a white squirrel sticks out like a ‘sore squirrel’ against the dark tree bark.”
And these white squirrels shouldn’t be confused with albino squirrels. An albino squirrel will have no pigmentation at all, and will have pink or blue eyes. Because these squirrels are such an oddity, they attract a considerable tourist base to the area. People from all over the country come to Brevard to see the natural beauty of the area and with hopes of spotting one of the elusive critters. In fact, Brevard takes such pride in its white squirrel population that a protective ordinance was approved in 1986, which makes it “unlawful for any person to hunt, kill, trap or otherwise take any protected squirrels within the city.” “The ordinance wasn’t put in place because there was a problem; it was more to recognize that they are a special species we have living here,” Zimmerman says. Each year, Brevard hosts the Annual White Squirrel Festival during Memorial Day weekend. The festival is complete with free live music, the Squirrel Box Derby, the White Squirrel 5K and 10K race, guided tours, exhibits and squirrel feeder and photo contests.
To ensure the population continues to grow, the White Squirrel Research Institute conducts an annual white squirrel count. Originally, the project started as a Brevard College student project, but was continued by mentor Glesener, the research institute’s director, and the help of volunteers. Each year, the original city limits are divided into 35 sections approximately 20–30 acres large and all squirrels are counted. “We conduct the count to see how well they are thriving in this populated area, and to see how well the white squirrels are doing compared to their siblings,” Zimmerman says Glesener adds that the population appears to be maintaining its numbers or possibly growing by a small percentage. Zimmerman says there are three reasons that tree squirrels thrive in the Brevard area—the density of trees, which they need for food and mating, the city-wide ordinance protecting the squirrels and the fact that town residents will actually put out feeders to encourage the squirrels. “They aren’t the sort of cute, cuddly thing that people want to make pets out of,” Zimmerman says. “But the residents here have a recognized respect for them.” “I have had people tell me they will brake for white squirrels, but not gray ones. Or that they will let white squirrels feed at their bird feeders, but shoo gray ones away,” Glesener says. “There is much civic pride over our squirrels.”