photo by geopungo
Yesterday, as we discussed the Grey Squirrel at great length, I alluded to the fact that they do not have a monopoly on DC, squirrel-wise. And a casual walk through DC, specially Squirrel-Central, Lafayette Park, will probably result in at least one sighting of the feared and dreaded "Black Squirrel of Death".
Breath normally though, these are simply a variant of our normal Eastern Grey Squirrels, a "melanistic variety" to use the proper terminology. It is thought that when the first settlers came to North America, the Black variant was the dominant one, greatly outnumbering their Grey cousins. In the shady gloom of a virgin forest, the darker coloring gave an evolutionary advantage to the Black ones. However, once settlers started clearing land, and more importantly, hunting squirrels, the darkness worked against them. Quite simply, in a sunny field, a black squirrel stands out.
So, outside a few pockets, the black ones were hunted and bred out of the entire Continental US. However, they retained their evolutionary advantage further north. In addition to the protective nature of the coloring, black retains heat better, giving them an advantage in colder climates.
But if they were all hunted out, how did they end up in DC? Well, in 1902, and again in 1906, the National Zoo received 18 Black Squirrels from the Department of Crown Lands of Ontario. Over time, they managed to spread from the Zoo into the surrounding neighborhoods. It's unclear if they were deliberately released or simply escaped. Presumably, breeding squirrels is much easier than, say, Giant Pandas, and so they may have just let the surplus go. Either way, they started to spread outwards from the National Zoo. The Smithsonian Museum of National History has a preserved specimen dating from 1917 from Cleveland Park. The 1923 Mammals of the District of Columbia notes that they can be found throughout the Cleavland Park area. Today, they've spread as far north as Ft. Meade, MD (30 miles), as far east as Annapolis (30 miles), and as far south Prince William County, VA (25 miles).
And not only have the Black Squirrels spread, they've become part of the local zeitgeist. Locals enjoy pointing them out, and visitors are fascinated by the, even more so than the ubiquitous Grey variant. Heck, there's even a bar named after them.