Dateline – February 2022 – McKinney, Texas

In late January I received an interesting email from a nice lady in McKinney, Texas. Included in the note were several pictures of an unusual looking squirrel… and a critical question. A sampling of the pictures Bonnie sent me can be seen below.

A sampling of the photos Bonnie shared with me

As for the question… What Bonnie really wanted to know is: Just what the heck is up with this strange black and orange squirrel that keeps coming to my yard!?!

As you can see from the photos above, this odd visitor to Bonnie’s backyard was decked out in a color scheme more suitable for a Halloween decoration than to an animal trying to stay hidden among the bare tree branches of a deep Texas winter. The unusual looking rodent presented rich shades of black on its upper surfaces, while retaining the bright orange coloration of a more typical squirrel on its belly and cheeks. Bonnie was curious about the squirrel’s out-of-the-ordinary appearance, and was searching for an answer.

It would seem that what we have here is a Fox Squirrel with a rare genetic condition known as melanism. Melanism is similar to the more familiar conditions of albinism and leucism, except in the case of melanism there is an excess of pigment rather than the lack thereof. See below for the definition of melanism from the Biology Online website.

Melanism is a condition in which a bodily part is morphologically dark due to the unusually high deposition of melanin. Melanin is a dark pigment produced by the specialized cells called melanocytes. This pigment attributes to the dark coloration of the hair, eyes, skin, plumage, pelage, and other bodily parts of a living organism. A black panther common in the equatorial rainforest of Malaya and the tropical rainforest of Mount Kenya is an example of an animal with melanism.

Melanism is in contrast to albinism. The latter is a condition where melanin production is lacking or insufficient. In humans, albinism results in reddish eyes, whitish hair and very pale skin.

Biology Online

After some additional correspondence, Bonnie and her husband were kind enough to invite me out to their home for an opportunity to take some pictures of my own. I stopped by their neighborhood three times over the course of as many days, sitting outside for hours on end while waiting for their special squirrel to make an appearance. And eventually he did! Two times to be exact, and then only for a minute or two. But it was plenty long enough to get a nice collection of photographs to share with you all!

But before we have a look at those pictures, let’s begin with a quick reminder of what a typical Fox Squirrel looks like. Ordinarily a Fox Squirrel’s fur is colored a gray agouti on its upper surfaces, and a vivid orange on its underside. See the photograph below.

A typical Fox Squirrel. Gray agouti on top and orange underneath

Now let’s take a look at Bonnie’s special squirrel. The difference in its appearance couldn’t be more striking. On this unique squirrel a solid black coat takes the place of the more typical gray fur we might expect to see. The areas of dark hairs accentuated the normal patterns of orange fur, making them much more noticeable than usual—especially around the ears, cheeks, snout, and eyes…

The melanistic Fox Squirrels makes his first appearance!
Look at that beautiful, unusual coat!
The unmistakable McKinney Melanistic
Notice the distinct areas of orange
accentuated by the rich, black fur
Black as night!

Bonnie keeps her bird feeders well supplied, which surely accounts for the squirrel’s strong affinity toward her backyard. And as you might expect, the birdseed was also very popular with many of other critters living in this neighborhood. As I sat in the backyard waiting for the cause celebre to show, I passed the time by photographing the menagerie of birds that came and went from the yard in a constant flux. Dozens of little birds stopped by, and I took as many pictures as I could manage! Several examples of more typical Fox Squirrels visited as well. A small selection of the photographs I recorded follows…

American Goldfinch
Dark-eyed Junco
Fox Squirrel
White-winged Dove
Yellow-rumped Warble
American Goldfinch on the move!
Carolina Chickadee
House Finch
Mourning Dove
Northern Cardinal – Male
Northern Cardinal – Female
White-throated Sparrow
Orange-crowned Warbler

That’s a pretty nice collection of pictures if I do say so myself! I rarely sit and wait while doing wildlife photography—I’ve always preferred to stay on the move. Nonetheless, I have to admit that I really enjoyed the time I spent doing this project. While using this technique the birds and squirrels soon became accustomed to my presence in Bonnie’s backyard, and before long they were coming and going like I wasn’t even there. The opportunity to observe their candid behaviors and to take photographs from relatively close range really made this effort special. It was a lot of fun!

And like I mentioned earlier, the unordinary squirrel stopped by for a second time during my last morning on site. I was fortunate enough to get one more set of pictures of the dark-colored rascal at that time. So, let’s close out this post with another look at our unique urban Fox Squirrel—the McKinney Melanistic! See below for a few more shots…

Making another appearance!
Cautiously approaching the bird feeder!
Eating his fill!
A nice closeup!
This squirrel was a voracious feeder!
A real bottomless pit!
Is he finally full!?!
Maybe one more peanut!
Time to go!

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