In some Native American cultures, there are few things more sacred than the great white buffalo, whose appearance is said to signal a great spiritual event.
In Washington, we have our very own mystical sign: the great white squirrel.
Today we kick off our annual Squirrel Week, a whole litter of columns devoted to the captivating, maddening, scampering and ubiquitous rodent that so many of us love — or love to hate. We start with the white squirrel.
It probably isn’t easy being a white squirrel. Predators would spot you more easily, said Richard Thorington, a curator of mammals at the Smithsonian and co-author of “Squirrels: The Animal Answer Guide.” Albino squirrels can suffer from medical problems, too, such as an intolerance to bright sunlight.
White squirrels are infrequent enough in our area that they occasionally garner news media attention. In 1936, a white squirrel on the White House grounds made news after chittering at first lady Eleanor Roosevelt. In 2009, Catholic University’s media office announced that an albino squirrel was living on campus, giving students “a sense of aesthetic pleasure and wonder.”
But our city is known more for its black squirrels — descendants of a batch imported from Canada by the Smithsonian — than for its white ones. That is not the case in Brevard, N.C., and Olney, Ill., two places blessed with such an abundance of the ghostly critters that they have become town mascots, their likenesses emblazoned on Web sites, coffee mugs, even police cars.
Species-wise, they are the same Eastern gray squirrels we have here — Sciurus carolinensis— but born with a unique palette. The Olney squirrels are true albinos, with pink eyes and no trace of color in their fur. Brevard’s squirrels are not albinos. They are pale, with a black spot on their heads and a dusky stripe across their backs.
Both towns have white squirrel creation myths. In Olney — a city of 9,000 about a five-hour drive south of Chicago — either a hunter named Stroup picked some babies up after killing their mother or a man named Ridgely found some on his farm.
“Both families just swear that they know their stories are true,” said Belinda Henton, Olney’s city clerk and the county’s only wildlife rehabilitator, a job she took on solely to preserve the white squirrels.
They need her help. In recent years, an annual census has counted about 100 white squirrels in the downtown area, down from a high of 182 when the first census was taken in 1977. Belinda and others worry that there is not enough genetic diversity to ensure the white squirrel population’s future.
An ordinance was passed in 2002 making it illegal to kill squirrels in Olney and giving them the right of way on streets. Cats are supposed to be kept from roaming, too. But still the numbers decline.
Belinda says 25 albinos are lost to cars every year. Recently, one was run over in front of her house. “If you only knew how many hours I put into raising it,” Belinda said. “It’s kind of like seeing one of your children hit.”
If the white squirrels die out, the town will lose some of its personality, Belinda said, not to mention tourist dollars.
Things are not so dire in Brevard, a town of 7,000 in western North Carolina. The white squirrels there also have a Hollywood-worthy back story: The first pair supposedly escaped from an overturned carnival truck in 1949. They and their milky descendents now number around 1,000 — about 40 percent of the total squirrel population within three miles of downtown.
Why do we find white squirrels so fascinating? “It’s something different, and believe it or not, the white version can look somewhat more adorable than the gray or black ones,” said Madrid Zimmerman, executive director of Heart of Brevard, a nonprofit organization focusing on downtown development. The group sponsors a White Squirrel Festival every Memorial Day weekend.
The squirrels do something besides provide an excuse to gawk or party. “We humans are trying to live in a compatible way with wildlife species,” Madrid said. “A tree squirrel probably needs five trees to handle their mating and feeding needs. We use them to remind [people] that trees are important not just in the forest, but in developed areas, too.”
As Belinda put it: “If you’re not taking care of the squirrels, you’re not taking care of your environment.”
Perhaps, like the white buffalo, the great white squirrel means something after all.