I brake for squirrels.
It’s not that I like the fuzzy rodents, I just can’t stand the thought of one running under the car.
So when a squirrel ran in front of my car last week, I didn’t hesitate to come to a quick stop. But then I did a double-take.
The squirrel was white, and I noticed just the slightest patch of gray on its back as it scampered up the neighbor’s tree.
My husband, Rick, commented on it almost as soon as I did. Yes, that really was a white squirrel in Riverland Terrace on James Island.
It was beautiful, if slightly bigger than the normal gray squirrel, with a lovely arching tail. Or maybe it just seemed bigger because it didn’t blend in with the road or the tree.
Neither one of us has ever seen a white squirrel, so I had to ask some questions. Like first — was it really a squirrel? And second, what was it doing in our neighborhood.
Enter the White Squirrel Research Institute in Brevard, N.C. (I love the internet for just this reason.) There’s a professor there who happens to be a white squirrel expert, Robert Glesener. Brevard has a white squirrel population that is protected by the town, and he’s studied the population for years. They count the number of white squirrels and have white squirrel spotters and, yes, even a White Squirrel Festival on Memorial Day weekend.
Glesener knows a lot about white squirrels and provides this information: In North America, so-called white squirrels are simply coat color variants of some squirrel species, in this case, the Eastern Gray Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis).
Most white squirrels are not albinos, which would mean they have pink or blue eyes.
Glesener has a map of white squirrel locations, and Charleston is on it, so I checked our archives for previous stories, looking for locations. I found that there is a population of white squirrels on Yonge’s Island.
In 2003, Virginia Geraty, the late Gullah scholar, told reporter Bo Petersen that her late husband, Charles, was responsible for the original breeding pairs in that area.
She said two pairs rode to the island in an airline shipping crate in her car a few decades ago on the way from who-knows-where to a menagerie kept by her husband on the bluff above the Stono River. He bred the squirrels and even created swings for them near their house.
Readers at the time also called to report white squirrels as far as Ladson and Moncks Corner. So I put a message out on Facebook to see if others have spotted squirrels in our area recently.
Karl McMillian confirmed that there are white squirrels in Stono Ferry near Hollywood. Kim Cooper says they have been spotted in a friend’s yard near Cypress Gardens. Elisa Matthews said that, like me, she spotted one in Goose Creek, but doesn’t know about any colonies there.
Glesener reports on the White Squirrel Institute’s website that “Isolated sightings of white squirrels (usually with dark eyes but no coat markings, a condition known as leucism) occur regularly through out the entire range of the Eastern Gray squirrel. This common mutation seems to be weeded out before it can be firmly established into a so-called colony.”
Yonge’s Island and Moncks Corner are listed on the site as areas where isolated white squirrels have been spotted.
And Glesner also says that these squirrels are more likely to be seen near humans, where natural predators are reduced. It turns out that if people can spot these easily, so can a squirrel’s enemies.
While I haven’t seen the squirrel again, I’ve looked for it. I just hope our neighbor doesn’t take offense that I slow down almost to a stop every time I pass his house, looking for the white curly tail.
Have you spotted a white squirrel? Let me know because I’d love to talk to you about it.
Reach Stephanie Harvin at firstname.lastname@example.org or 937-5557.