Stacey Cole's Nature Talks: Answer is no, red, gray squirrels can't crossbreed

STACEY COLE January 25. 2013 7:40PM

Can Red and Gray squirrels crossbreed? This question was raised in our column of Dec. 29, 2012, after quoting from a Newport reader as follows: "We have a pair of squirrels at our bird feeders every day. Both have the head of a red squirrel, tails and the full, good-size body of a gray squirrel, gray color on their bodies and red heads and back. Is this a rare sight for this species?"

I suggested in that column that the word "rare" was a good word to use, as over the last half-century we have had several inquiries regarding unusual coloration of red squirrels, gray squirrels and chipmunks as well. I raised the following questions: "How could our reader's squirrels have acquired their distinctive coloration resembling a gray squirrel, but with red heads and bodies? Do red squirrels and gray squirrels mate and produce a crossbreed?" Frankly, I admitted I had never read or heard that they did, and requested our readers if they had answers.

Our good friend, Ted Walski, biologist for the N.H. Fish and Game Department, offered the following explanation:

"Color phases of gray squirrels are fairly common throughout their range in North America, and include blacks, reds, albinos, and blendings of reds and blacks. Black phases tend to be more common in the northern than southern latitudes. Normal groups and blacks of various gradations between grays and blacks occur in the same litter.

"The photo of the squirrel from Newport recently is a reddish phase of the regular gray squirrel. The tail looked to be all white. The resident inquired whether it could have been a 'cross between a red squirrel and a gray squirrel.' The answer is no. They are different species, with a different number of chromosomes."

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Ted requests our readers participate in one or both, the mid-winter waterfowl census, (Jan. 1-March 31), and the winter deer yard survey.

The waterfowl census requests folks to identify and count all species of ducks and geese seen on open water. (Around dams or where rivers empty into larger rivers, such as the Connecticut and the Merrimack).

The winter deer yard survey needs reports of groups of wintering deer. One or both reports should be sent to the N.H. Fish and Game Department, 11 Hazen Drive, Concord, 03301.

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One of our Pembroke readers wrote in early December, in part: "Seeing the cardinals in the new snow reminded me of a few items I wanted to share with you. We had lots of cardinals and orioles this year. The young orioles stayed much longer, even after the adults had left, trying to figure out the grape jelly dishes. What a treat to watch. Also the hummers were later in leaving. They were joined by a lone butterfly. There were less bees. We had four bats that helped to keep our yard, not bug free, but a help. We also have a family of gray foxes! Three pups were under our bird feeder in August at dusk. Couldn't believe it! We now have a 'game camera' to see just what we have in our yard. Surprise! A possum, raccoon, woodchuck, two skunks and three foxes at least. A huge black cat even ate while the foxes ate too. At the same time a skunk raised its tail, but no skunk odor - maybe a warning to them. Quite a display.

"Our best gift this year was on Veteran's Day - a beautiful warm, bright blue sky. At Lower Suncook Lake we were admiring a loon and how beautiful the day was - Splash! A short distance from us a bald eagle came in - caught a fish and flew away. Its beautiful white head and its fan of white tail feathers was breathtaking! What a gift! They seem to visit that time of year when boats and most people are gone. Well, I've chatted long enough. Blessing to you."

What a night-time accumulation of mammals!

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On the subject of surveys, the fall issue of the Loon Preservation Committee Newsletter included a summary of the 2012 loon nesting season as follows: "This year's monitoring revealed a slight increase in the breeding loon population but a pretty lackluster nesting season. After a mild spring and no major storms and heat waves, a bumper crop of loon chicks seemed imminent by mid-June. Instead we saw only mixed success, with the Seacoast and Sunapee areas leading the way, and other regions, especially the North Country and southern Monadnock, trailing more than usual. The 134 loon chicks fledged this year was 14 less than last year in spite of an increase in the number of nesting pairs. We were surprised to see the number of nest failures, with no single factor prominent. Interpretation will require a case-by-case look at the particular outcomes in individual territories."

Stacey Cole's address is 529 W. Swanzey Road, Swanzey 03446.

Nature Talks

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