"Growing up, we always had squirrels running around the yard. Cute, cuddly brown squirrels. Take a day trip into Elkhart and suddenly, the squirrels are these terrifying ninja squirrels with black fur and pointy ears. What gives?”
Alas, Elkhart County is not being taken over by a species of mutant ninja squirrels.
“Black squirrels are nothing more than a genetic variation of gray squirrels,” said Jerry Good, marketing coordinator and former chief naturalist for the Elkhart County Parks and Recreation Department.
In northern Indiana, gray squirrels are second only in popularity to eastern fox squirrels (those are the cute, cuddly brown ones).
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Good acknowledged there does seem to be more black squirrels hanging around lately, but according to local research he did in 2002, they’ve flourished in Elkhart County since at least the 1930s.
That’s when a man named Ernest Martin brought several cages of the dark-furred creatures from Grand Rapids, Mich., to Goshen. He set them free after raising them in captivity for four years, and they quickly assimilated into the local habitat.
“Their ranks increased by inbreeding and breeding with the local eastern gray squirrels,” Good wrote in a 2002 article titled ”Black Squirrel Towns” published in the parks department’s newsletter.
As for the temperament of the black squirrel, there seems to be some disagreement among the experts.
Good maintains the “folklore” of them being mean and aggressive is untrue, or at least exaggerated. He recalled the time he saw a typical fox squirrel turn a baby bird into a snack.
But Linda Byer, a local wildlife biologist for the Indiana Department of Natural Resouces (DNR), gives a slightly different description:
“[Black squirrels] are smaller, quicker and more aggressive then our native fox squirrels ... and frequently will run fox squirrels out of their territory,” she wrote in an email.
As for the sudden appearance of black squirrels in certain areas of Elkhart County?
That can probably be attributed to migrating populations over time, Good said.
And despite some local annoyance over the (arguably) feisty rodents, he believes they’re something to cherish.
“I think instead of us always looking down on the black squirrels, maybe we should think of them more as an interesting natural attribute to our area,” he said.
Localized populations of black squirrels can also be found across the Midwest (especially in Michigan) and in Indiana locales including Auburn, Angola, Steuben County, Fort Wayne, Lafeyette and Huntertown, according to Phil Bloom, communications director for the Indiana DNR.