C.W. Gusewell

THE KANSAS CITY STAR

Squirrel treat is too good to eat

Gray squirrels are abundant in our city neighborhood. In the woodland around our Ozark cabin, the red ones – fox squirrels we call them – are more numerous.

At home we feed them, admiring their nimbleness as they poach at the hanging tubes of bird seed. They come and go freely, safe from the dogs that are slowed by age and portliness.

In the country, I eat them. The squirrels, not the dogs.

But on a recent bright spring morning, a rare beast came visiting.

“Quick! Come look,” my wife called out.

And there it was, clinging to the trunk of the walnut tree by our backyard fence, a pure white squirrel. Not just pale or mottled or partly white, but so brilliant it looked almost as if it were lighted from within.

And there it remained, motionless for several minutes, at a height of some 5 or 6 feet on the trunk, facing upward.

Then, moving carefully, it turned to face down, and crept toward the ground, hesitated, then reversed and climbed back up.

In what seemed to be a torment of indecision, it repeated this maneuver several times during the quarter-hour or so it stayed on the tree.

What accounted for such behavior? Did the creature somehow understand that, on the ground, its startling whiteness would make it a target for some predator?

I couldn’t say. I know how squirrels taste, but I don’t know how they think. In any event, the dogs were inside, and I wouldn’t dream of frying so rare a visitor.

Presently he (or she) decided to leave – climbed a bit higher, hopped to the top board of the fence, perched there briefly, and when next we looked was gone.

It inspired me to see what I might learn online about white squirrels. What I found was 76 pages on Google – some 700-plus individual sites devoted to the subject, rather more than this column can accommodate.

For starters, no fewer than eight communities in different U.S. states, from Connecticut to Florida, report large numbers of sightings.

At least four of those – Olney, Ill., Kenton, Tenn.; Brevard, N.C., and the town of Marionville, Mo., 16 miles southwest of Springfield – hold annual white squirrel festivals. Each claims to have the world’s largest concentration of the rodents, though the accuracy of their surveys is hard to verify.

They are fiercely protective of their white squirrels, and levy fines of up to $500 on anyone who would trap, injure or kill one.

In what was termed a “squirrel war,” one town accused another of kidnapping a breeding pair as foundation stock for a population of its own.

In my research I came across a website that listed places in the U.S. where the creatures have been spotted, and which solicited information on any new encounters.

In our immediate area, only two previous reports were cited, one from Raytown, the other from Shawnee.

So, conscious of my duty to science, I sent an email telling of the visitor to our yard. And I received an almost immediate reply.

Mine, it declared, was the very first in Kansas City proper.

I shudder to write that, fully expecting a flood of angry calls, emails and paper messages from dozens, maybe hundreds of readers, saying they’ve been seeing these infernal things for years.

With 700 sites devoted to them on Google, how could they be all that rare?