Have you seen a white squirrel in High Park? One was first seen in fall of 2010 and was frequently seen in spring 2011! Since only one at a time has been seen it may be the same individual.
The white squirrel you may come across in High Park is actually an Eastern Gray Squirrel, Sciurus carolinensis, which has white fur as a result of mutated genes. It’s a partial albino - the eyes are dark, not pink like a pure albino. While sightings in High Park are rare, Trinity Bellwoods Park has long been known for its colony of pure albinos, where there have actually been sightings of squirrels not only with white fur, but also pink eyes. Albinos don’t tend to persist, possibly because albinism is linked to poor vision, making them more vulnerable to predators and vehicles.
While you may not have been so lucky as to spot a white squirrel in High Park, certainly you’ve come across the Eastern Gray Squirrel in one of its other colours, gray or black. That’s right, the black and gray squirrels you see running around the park (at up to 25 km per hour!) are not two separate species, but simply different colour variations. The black phase is common in the Toronto area but uncommon in the northeast U.S. and not found at all in the southern U.S. Before European settlement, black squirrels were more common than gray throughout their range. It is thought that their dark colour gave them better protection from predators when they lived in the dense dark forests that once covered the northeastern States and eastern Canada. The fact that they are still common here may be related to our colder climate.
Squirrels get their name from their bushy tail. The word Sciurus is actually derived from two different Greek words that mean “shadow” and “tail”. It’s no surprise they were named for their tail, as it has several functions, including keeping warm in the winter, expressing their mood to other squirrels, and distracting predators.
The Eastern Gray Squirrel is very common in the park, since an important feature for this species is the presence of large canopy trees, such as oaks, which provide food and den sites. The fact that the park is located in an urban area is no deterrent for these squirrels. In fact, the highest density in the U.S recorded for this species was at Lafayette Park, next to the White House, where these large canopy trees were present, with density of the squirrels at this site reaching 20 per acre. (No similar numbers are available for High Park but we seem to have our fair share.)
When the restoration of the Black Oak Savannah began in the 1990s, it was thought that the large population of gray squirrels may have contributed to poor oak regeneration in High Park, since acorns are a favoured food source (although their storing habits may also play help in the planting process). In recent years the oak regeneration has been responding well to better management practices, such as prescribed burns, so maybe the squirrels were not the culprits after all!
While it’s not hard to spot an Eastern Gray Squirrel in High Park, you’re most likely to do so during the day, when they are most active, and if you look around at the trees, where they spend most of their lives.
Author: Barbi Lazarus
Sources & further reading:
Get to know the squirrels of Toronto (BlogTO May 2014)
A Lighter Shade of White, Spacing Magazine. Kaitlyn Kochany. Winter 2009-2010 issue.
Manski, D.A, Van Druff, L.W and Flyger, V. 1981. “Activities of Gray Squirrels and People in a Downtown Washington, D.C Park.” Trans. North America Wildlife and Natural Resource Conference. Volume 46: 439-454.