The cards have been stacked against him, or her, since Day 1. Yet, in spite of daily threats from traffic, birds of prey and stray cats, the white squirrel of Spanish Plaza may be spotted by a discerning eye most likely in the morning and just before dusk, foraging with fellow eastern grey squirrels in the oaks of the plaza and neighboring Mobile Chamber of Commerce.
Spotting a lone white squirrel, as it turns out, is exceedingly rare. Lagniappe was tipped off to this squirrel’s presence by Edith Gray, an administrative assistant in the Deputy Administrator’s Office for the Mobile County Commission. On her way to work, she usually parks by Spanish Plaza and walks to Mobile Government Plaza.
“One morning, I think sometime in the fall … I saw a solid white squirrel in one of the oak trees near the park,” she recalled. “I saw him again some time later and looked up online about white squirrels and found out they are pretty rare. I’ve never seen one. I found out he was living in the oak trees at the corner of Church and Franklin. I have seen him two more times since.”
Gray researched and discovered that except for in a few communities where genetics have made their numbers more abundant, white squirrels rarely ever exist on their own. Rob Nelson, a biologist who maintains a website about the phenomenon, said the information he has collected is noteworthy.
White squirrels, as Nelson notes, “are almost always a white version of the eastern grey squirrel. There are a few types of genetic aberrations that cause the white coats. The first is albinism, caused by a mutation on a gene that codes for pigmentation. Albinos have red eyes. The other is a white morph, caused by a different gene. It is a naturally occurring trait of eastern grey squirrels that is very, very rare. In our study, we’re trying to figure out just how rare.”
While Lagniappe has been able to observe and photograph the white squirrel of Spanish Plaza on several occasions, whether it is an albino or a morph remains inconclusive. More so than the other squirrels, the white squirrel tends to stay high in the treetops when people are near. Once, he was found digging in the hedges of boxwood in the plaza, but darted up a tree almost immediately as he was approached.
White squirrels have good reason to be timid, Nelson notes: “It’s somewhat rare to see a white squirrel … because white squirrels are likely highly selected against. In other words, predators to squirrels, such as hawks, really like it when their prey is highlighted white!”
More information, as well as a white squirrel spotter map, is available on his website, www.untamedscience.com.
Indeed, during Lagniappe’s very first observation of the squirrel, we witnessed one of his brethren being captured and eaten by a large, short-haired grey cat who, according to an employee, lives outside the Chamber. In a subsequent visit, the same cat was eyeing other squirrels from the shadows. It’s also not uncommon to see a hawk, eagle or osprey soaring above downtown Mobile.
So, in honor of this squirrel’s unlikely existence and possibly short life in our fair city, Lagniappe is sponsoring a white squirrel awareness campaign and naming contest. Feel free to submit your entry; Lagniappe will narrow the list of names to finalists, which we will put to a vote. The winner will receive a free one-year subscription to Lagniappe and a $50 gift card to Callaghan’s Irish Social Club.
To enter, just put “White Squirrel” in the subject line of an email, put the proposed name of the squirrel in the body, and send the email to email@example.com. Bonus points if we can collectively confirm the squirrel’s genetic mutation.