Q: While shopping recently at my local Schnucks, I spotted a squirrel with a reddish tail! All the squirrels I’ve ever seen are gray. What kind of freak show is going on around here?
Cherry, of Villa Hills
A: Good thing you didn’t see a southern flying squirrel or else you really would have lost it.
Seriously, what you spied is no mutant from the Bridgeton landfill. While not nearly as common as the Eastern gray squirrel you’re used to, the fox squirrel — also called a red squirrel — is by no means a freak of nature or escapee from some mad scientist’s lab, Scott Isringhausen, a naturalist with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, told me.
“Oh, yeah, they’re common,” he said. “They look just like a regular squirrel, but they’ve got a red tail. You see more gray squirrels now because they’ve kind of run the red squirrel out. But they eat hickory nuts and walnuts and they forage just like any squirrel you see.”
In fact, their somewhat rare appearances have led to theories worthy of a 1950s Roger Corman horror flick that might have been called “Invasion of the Squirrel Neuterers.” A Missouri Department of Conservation poster wrote that he had grown up in central Missouri, where, like here, gray squirrels vastly outnumbered the fox variety.
“Hunters, who generally favored the larger, meatier fox squirrels, had a gruesome explanation,” he wrote. “Gray squirrels sneaked into fox squirrel nests when the adults were away and castrated young male fox squirrels. That, they said, was why fox squirrel numbers were dwindling.”
Certainly a fascinating theory for hunters to banter about as they sit in front of their campfire at night with a cold Blatz, but totally illogical. Why stop at castration when they could just as easily kill the young kits? A more likely explanation may be that gray squirrels are simply better adapted to certain areas.
According to the University of Illinois Extension Service, Illinois actually has four species of squirrels: the large fox squirrel, which can weigh 2 pounds and stretch out 2 feet and boasts fur with a reddish cast; the Eastern gray, which typically weighs about a pound and quarter; the much smaller red squirrel (tamiassciurus hudsonicus) that is generally found in northeastern Illinois; and, yes, the southern flying squirrel, which weighs about 2 ounces and earned its name because of folds of skin on both sides of its body from wrist to ankle that allow it to glide.
So the next time you see the red/fox variety, remember there’s no reason to go nuts.
To whom or what is Jan. 21 now dedicated to — at least, since 2001?
Answer to Sunday’s trivia: Having become a household name with his “War of the Worlds” and “Citizen Kane,” actor Orson Welles volunteered in 1943 to create a big-top spectacle that was part circus and part magic show. It was designed to entertain the troops for free while raising money for the War Assistance League through ticket sales to the general public. One of the acts featured Welles as a magician who sawed a comely assistant in half, Rita Hayworth. But one night when the famed actress was unavailable, he reportedly tested his skills on a 17-year-old audience volunteer, a newly enlisted Navy man (and future “Tonight” show king) named Johnny Carson. The Mercury Wonder Show ran Aug. 3 to Sept. 9 in the heart of Hollywood. Wells married Hayworth two days before it closed.