Fox squirrels not always reddish-brown
Fur color, something different than normal, is what has brought attention to this very common small mammal. They are Fox squirrels, and a few of them are offering us human wildlife watchers a rare treat, namely, squirrels nearly all white (not albino), and others with just their tails holding white hairs while the rest of the body retains normal fur.
The squirrel image with just its tail colored white is near this author’s home in Albion. I have seen and photographed a similar situation several years ago, and I wrote about these anomalies, including other communities with many all white or all black squirrels, in my column of Nov. 13, 2016.
Some cities have incorporated wildlife depictions as part of their public identity on police cars, fire trucks, employee work shirt patches, school mascots, and tourist shop mementos. White squirrels are common in Marionville, Mo.; Olney, Ill.; and Kenton, Tenn..
The flip side of Mother Nature’s melanistic or not genetic code anomalies are all black squirrels found in cities such as Middletown, Conn.; Council Bluffs, Iowa; London, Ontario, Canada; Kent and Glendale, Ohio; and Charleston, W.V. I photographed an all black fox squirrel near the Sand Road between Albion and Marshalltown in November 2016.
So what is behind the unusual variations of hair color on squirrels? According to several researched articles, these rarities are the result of melanin production, too much or too little. Mammals have two types of melanin produced by hair follicles. Low melanin proportions tend
toward white fur and are a genetic anomaly. Age-related lightening of the fur is not genetic but the result of the follicles losing their ability to produce melanin. High melanin production can give the animal black fur.
Another trick of Mother Nature that she has given squirrels a system to grow new hair is molts. There are two molts per year, spring and fall. On the body, a molt will begin with replacement hairs at the head which progresses toward the tail. On the tail itself, molting begins at the tip and gradually moves toward the body over a three to four week timeline.
The squirrels go about their business of gathering food sources. The cousin of our fox squirrel is the gray squirrel. Mammologists have noted that grays are a tad smaller, and as for teeth in their skulls, Gray’s have one more set of upper cheek teeth than fox squirrels. Fox squirrel skulls are larger by both length and width by just enough to notice. However, tooth numbers are critically important to identification.
Prior to settlement of the United States, some naturalists and careful observers of squirrels proposed that it would have been entirely possible for tree squirrels to move from the East Coast into the Midwest without ever setting their feet on the ground. A tree-to-tree hop, skip and jump could have made that probable. If that ever happened is unknown, but is interesting to speculate upon.
Mother Nature provides interesting opportunities as she cares for her creations. Do be a careful observer of all the wild critters that live in and around us. Enjoy.
DEER DATA was a portion of my story last week. I told of the ongoing work by biologists to monitor overall populations in all corners of Iowa. Biologists also know that whitetail deer can be very prolific if left to their own devices. The potential for Iowa’s deer herd to outgrow its habitat exists. It is a real thing. Without hunting, the population could double in two years and double again in two more years.
That is not a strategy DNR biologists want to advocate. A huge imbalance of deer and habitat decay, plus motorists and landowner complaints would re-emerge.
What Iowa is doing for deer management may not be perfect, but it is working. What is being done with regard to management is to selectively reduce numbers each fall during hunting seasons.
I was asked recently if deer hunting is selectively taking out too many trophy bucks? The basis for the question was a thought that only bucks with smaller antlers would be a long term trend line, and the truly trophy bucks would become less and less available. The question was not based on biological facts — just emotion — and emotion is not how to respond to policy decisions for long term good results.
My answer was easy to answer. No, taking trophy deer is not hurting the deer herd. To wish for and succeed in taking a big antlered deer is one thing. To actually accomplish that deer is far harder to do. The odds are against the hunter to fulfill that dream, but it happens every year somewhere for someone.
Hunters are contributing significantly to healthy deer herds even when a few of the off takes from the land happen to be bucks with very impressive antler sets. Smaller buck deer live to see another year, and they generally grow larger antlers every year. Bucks get wiser and learn how to evade and stay well hidden at all times as they mature.
Nationally, deer hunters increased during the COVID years, 2020 and 2021. Left with more time off work to do stuff and wanting to participate in acquiring wholesome meats for the family, there was an average of a five percent increase in deer licenses sales from pre-COVID years. With more hunters afield in all states, they took home over 500,000 more deer than in previous years.
According to data from the National Deer Association (NDA), 6.3 million deer were killed by legal, regulated hunting during the 2020-21 season. This broke a record that had stood since 2011. Buck deer harvested nationally came out to 3,041,544, and that was the most bucks taken in 21 years of record keeping.
NDA data shows that 41 percent of the bucks were at least 3.5 years old. So the effect is that the 2020-21 deer seasons across the U.S. had the most mature buck deer removed. Of those deer, a small proportion were exceptional antlered animals, while the majority were respectable representatives of the species.
Year after year, careful management allows young bucks to become bigger antlered animals. There is no decrease in “trophy class” bucks just because a hunter, a youth out for their first hunt, or an archer, or a gun hunter happens to be in the right place at the right time to collect
a lifetime example of a very big antlered deer.
Iowa’s Deer Classic Show each year held during early March verifies the ability of Iowa lands to grow some fantastic buck deer. Hunters are reaping the benefits of age classes of deer being balanced, and overall population numbers in line with the carrying capacity of the land, and the social carrying capacity of public perceptions.
Pheasants are bringing off new broods. Reports are coming in that hen pheasants, and their little newly hatched chicks are being spotted. It is good to know that this hardy game bird is doing its best to bring off a new generation.
Pheasant numbers will be counted during August as biologists and game wardens drive designated routes in all 99 counties of Iowa. From that data, trend lines can be graphed to compare pheasant numbers from past years and decades.
Weather plays an important role. Habitat plays a huge role since survival cover and food sources are found within good habitat. Stay tuned as summer progresses.
Wild turkey observations are also being encouraged. If and when you see hen turkeys and her little poults, make a note of the date and location, size of the birds and total number of poults. Let me know what you see. Call me at 641-750-4914. I’ll get the info to the correct people. Thanks.
Garry Brandenburg is the retired director of the
Marshall County Conservation Board. He is a graduate of
Iowa State University with a BS degree in Fish & Wildlife Biology.
Contact him at:
P.O. Box 96
Albion, IA 50005