By Jack Spaulding
They scamper like white apparitions among the treetops, and the Native Americans called them “spirit squirrels.”
Imagine seeing a red squirrel that was part red and part white. Often the rare treetop acrobats will be totally white except for small portions of the body like the feet and tail. No… they are not albinos, as their eyes are not pink, but colored the same as a regular squirrel. Wildlife biologists refer to them as piebald squirrels, and they are as rare as hen’s teeth.
Considering I am past mid-fifties and spent the majority of my life in hills and hollers, and in close association with those who hunt and haunt hills and hollows, you can say I have been to the front lines.
Even being a front-line, yet rather unaccomplished hunter and lover of the out-of-doors, I am here to state… piebald squirrels are rare. In all my days afield, I have seen a sum total of four piebald squirrels.
Half of the piebald squirrels I have seen are: a taxidermy mount in southern Indiana, and a live specimen I saw in the Conn’s Creek bottomland a few years ago.
And unbelievably, the other two of the rare genetic mutation of red squirrels on my life list belong to my good friend and fellow hunter, Bill Barker of Waldron, Ind.
Having a little extra time, I dropped by Bill’s house to discuss plans for the upcoming deer season. As I was about to leave, Barker gave a big grin and said, “Before you go… I want you to see my squirrel.”
Sure enough, Bill showed me the finest piebald squirrel I have seen. The animal was solid white save for its muzzle, the tips of the ears, the tips of its feet, its tail, and was colored with just a dusting of red on its underside. It was beautiful.
“I was driving along a county road, and I saw something white out in a soybean field,” said Barker. “As I drove by, it really didn’t look like a white cat, and I wasn’t sure what it was.
“I turned around and drove back, got out my binoculars and took a close look. Sure enough… it was a piebald squirrel.
“I just happened to know the owners of the farm, and I called them up to ask permission to hunt the woodland on their farm. I let them know there was a white squirrel in their woods, and I would like to try hunting for it. They gave me the go ahead.
“I was lucky. About an hour and a half into the hunt, I saw the piebald chasing a standard colored red squirrel through the trees. While it was busy harassing the red, I put a tight bead on it and pulled the trigger.”
A lot of unknowing people seeing a piebald squirrel would consider them to be something special, something to be preserved.
In truth, most wildlife biologists prefer them to be preserved as taxidermy mounts rather than wild living specimens. It seems the piebald coloration is created by mutated genes and often is accompanied by other physical weaknesses or genetic disorders. To try to preserve the animals in the wild might well put the species in danger of being passed mutated genes. They are radically different, but not in a good way.
From the looks of it, the piebald Barker took this fall was an old squirrel… highly unusual. Odds of survival for a piebald are slim because the white coloration leaves them with little or no camouflage from predators.
From my own personal experience, it is truly mesmerizing to see one of the white robed acrobatic critters flying through the treetops.
Once you have seen one, it is easy to see how Native Americans would give them “spirit status” and revere them as special messengers to the spirits of the woodland.
Put-and-take pheasant hunts
Pheasants will be released for put-and-take hunting Nov. 18-26 on Atterbury, Glendale, Pigeon River (west of SR 3), Tri-County, Willow Slough and Winamac Fish and Wildlife areas and Roush Lake.
“We still have about 20 percent of the reserved put-and-take spots open,” said DNR biologist Mark Reiter. “And the weather forecast looks pretty good for this weekend.”
The cost for put-and-take hunts is $15 per person and the bag limit is two birds. Hunters can reserve their put/take pheasant hunts online at: www.in.gov/dnr/fishwild/
Hunters can select the date, property, and property location for their hunt. Hunting reservations will be available until noon on the day prior to the hunt date. Hunts will not be available first-come, first-served at the properties, as in past years.
This farm news was published in the Nov. 22, 2006 issue of Farm World, serving Indiana, Ohio, Illinois, Kentucky, Michigan and Tennessee.