A black-phase gray squirrel with a red tail has made an appearance in Michael and Kris Willard’s Harvey yard. Other sightings of this color mutation have been reported in the region. (Photos courtesy of Michael Willard)


Journal Staff Writer

HARVEY — Michael Willard has made many exquisite carvings of wildlife before, but if he decides to make one of a unique squirrel he recently saw in his backyard, it undoubtedly would be a carving like no other.

Willard, who lives in Harvey, got an unusual visitor on Sunday at his feeder: a black squirrel with a red tail. He gets plenty of black-phase gray squirrels and red squirrels, but never one with a mix of the two colors.

Apparently, it’s not a hybrid of the two.

Another view of the black-phase gray squirrel with a red tail in Michael and Kris Willard’s Harvey yard is shown. Willard said he has not seen the squirrel lately, but noted a neighbor mentioned he had one hanging out in his yard, and a Harvey woman said she has had two with that coloration on her property.(Photos courtesy of Michael Willard)

Ryne Rutherford, a biologist who operates Biophilia LLC, was shown a photo of the strange squirrel.

“I’d call it a melanistic/erythristic gray squirrel,” Rutherford said in a social media post. “Pretty unusual! It’s like the typical melanistic (all black) gray squirrel, but with reddish tail pigment. Weird!”

He explained erythristic means having an unusual amount of red pigment.

Rutherford also noted the characteristic is not very common.

“It does happen much more often in towns where squirrels don’t face as much threat from predators,” he said.

Willard acknowledged he is not a geneticist. However, he has picked up a few tidbits about the squirrel, which in a way is not unusual.

“As far the species is concerned, it’s a gray squirrel,” Willard said.

However, he said gene mutations caused the strange coloration.

“You can pass that to future generations if you get a couple of them with the same recessive gene,” Willard said.

He posted several photos of his new visitor on Facebook, which resulted in a lot of feedback.

One person asked, perhaps jokingly, if he made up the animal.

“I knew someone was going to ask that,” Willard wrote. “No, he’s for real.”

Another person posted that she received a call about three of these types of squirrels in Wisconsin.

“New trend in squirrel fashion?” Willard responded. “I heard from several people who saw this post that they’ve also spotted others in the Marquette area.”

Some reportedly are not too far from his home.

“There seems to be a bit of a concentration out here in Harvey,” Willard said.

Willard’s new special friend might have a safe haven for a while.

“I kind of rescued him for a picture because my wife, Kris, gets a little upset with them when they’re stealing all of our bird seed out of our feeders, and she started chasing them away,” Willard said. “And then all of a sudden she spotted that red tail and gave me a holler, and I managed just to get a couple of quick photos of it.”

Willard said he has not seen the squirrel lately, but noted a neighbor mentioned he had one hanging out in his yard, and a Harvey woman said she has had two with that coloration on her property.

There also was a report of one on Presque Isle.

“I had seen a picture of one of these one time and I had read about them, and when I first saw the picture, I thought, ‘This has got to be fake.’ It just looked different and so stark with that red tail,” Willard said.

That’s understandable. Willard’s squirrel looks like someone just pasted or pinned a red tail on a black squirrel body.

Color aberrations, though, can vary.

Willard said these squirrels will get spots and some streaking up on their rump.

“It seems like it’s most common that they get just the red tail, and it’s such a stark contrast,” Willard said.

Whatever the marking, that squirrel definitely is a departure from the norm.

Christie Mastric can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 250. Her email address is cbleck@miningjournal.net


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