black squirrel with a cinnamon-colored tail

A Squirrely Show of Color

The black squirrel stopped me in my tracks.

Black is a common color morph in eastern gray squirrels, especially in northern areas like Ohio, Michigan, and Ontario.

But this black squirrel had a most uncommon feature: a cinnamon-colored tail.

Despite the name, eastern grays vary from all gray to reddish to all black. Most have cinnamon hairs in the mix, ranging from barely visible highlights to big red splotches. I see the unusual squirrel often enough to study its pelage. In bright sunlight, cinnamon slivers shine in its black fur, and the tail fades somewhat, as though over-exposed in a photo. But the odd color combo is real, not some trick of lighting.

My two-toned neighbor

In 2019, researchers found a faulty gene that explains black fur in a normally gray squirrel. They believe the color-changing mutation originated in fox squirrels but spread to gray squirrels through interbreeding. Is my bi-colored neighbor the product of such a coupling?

Gray with a sprinkling of cinnamon

Probably not. The interbreeding that introduced black pelage (formally known as ‘melanistic’) to gray squirrels is apparently ancestral, not recent. Scientists suspect that the black variant has flourished in northern climates because dark fur provides an evolutionary advantage of retaining heat in frigid weather.

Black from nose to tail. In brighter light, cinnamon hairs would also be visible.

In addition, several resources say that fox and eastern gray squirrels are unlikely to live in proximity. The eastern grays prefer forests. The fox squirrels gravitate to areas where forests meet clearings, like woods at the perimeter of a farmer’s field.

Even in urban areas, these squirrels tend to choose dissimilar habitats. That insight comes from a citizen-science initiative called Project Squirrel, which was begun by Dr. Joel Brown of the University of Illinois-Chicago. The project collects data used to catalog the eastern gray and fox squirrels’ habitat preferences. More than 1,000 project participants have observed squirrels and reported their whereabouts online since 1997 (including me, as of last week).

Lots of foxy red, but according to Project Squirrel, the white-fringed tail means this neighbor is eastern gray.

If you’re wondering whether a red squirrel might be in the mix, that’s unlikely. They’re rarely melanistic, considerably smaller than the grays or foxes, and they don’t interbreed.

So, back to my two-toned neighborhood squirrel. The Squirrel Project website has a page for photo sharing, where I found the final word on the animal’s unusual color combo. Someone posted a photo of a similar squirrel, and the project team weighed in: Melanistic grays tend to have black bodies and tails, but can sometimes have gray, orange, or even white, tails.

My neighbor, therefore, is without a doubt a melanistic eastern gray squirrel. That is not to suggest identifying squirrels has become totally cut and dry for this amateur naturalist. Here’s a squirrel whose cinnamon-colored belly had me shaking my head in confusion.

Do you see squirrels of many colors? Let me know in the comments. And do consider joining the Squirrel Project.

In addition to the Squirrel Project link I posted above, here are some great articles that helped me nail down Mr. Cinnamon-Tail’s identity:

Read about the squirrel genetics study in Smithsonian Magazine online.

Gray squirrels’ fur changes color seasonally. Learn more in an article published by the State University of New York’s College of Environmental Science and Forestry.

Here’s an article about the role evolution plays in advancing the black squirrel population. I found it interesting that researchers note there’s evidence of black squirrels in Ohio dating to the 1760s.

Read an interview with Dr. Joel Brown and watch a fascinating video where he talks about his gray v. fox squirrel study.

Here’s a short explanation of why red and gray squirrels do not interbreed.


Squirrels Leap, Squirrels Sleep, by April Pulley Sayre, illustrated by Steve Jenkins.
This beautiful picture book invites young children to explore the busy life of a squirrel. With spare, rhyming text and beautiful art, each page shows some aspect of a squirrel’s daily activity. There’s mention of several kinds of squirrels, with lots of visual habitat clues. Back matter adds scientific detail that will engage older kids. A terrific book to introduce and learn about an animal most kids will encounter from a very young age. Here’s a link to find the book.

Image Credits: Carol Doeringer.

17 thoughts on “A Squirrely Show of Color”

  1. What a striking fashion look, that cinnamon tail contrasted with the black body! Almost looks like an accessory rather than an integral part of the little guy. All of your pictures here are so lovely, but in so many places squirrels are seen as pests. Here in the Sonoran desert we have mostly ground squirrels–maybe because they don’t like climbing the cactus!

  2. I just saw this little guy on my fence! Love the black body and cinnamon colored tail. I am from northern Michigan and this is the first spotting ever !

    1. I don’t know about you, but the first time I spotted Cinnamon Tail by my home, I did a huge double-take. Then, that tail sure made it easy to keep an eye on the critter’s squirrely shenanigans!

  3. We have a dark coppery brown squirrel with a red tail at our house in Michigan. We also have a dark brown with red patches and a red tail. We have large trees and an area of old woods nearby.

    1. That’s what the one I saw today looked a little bit more like. I actually googled Brown and blonde squirrel, not knowing the lingo. I’ll try to get a good picture from the video I made. It was really difficult to see the distinctions in it though. I had to overexpose it a bit because it mostly looked dark against a white sidewalk.

  4. I have a pair of black squirrels with cinnamon tails. They are somewhat larger than the grey squirrel. We also have a grey with cinnamon belly/chest. We live in Erin Onrario.

    1. The black/cinnamon combination is so eye-catching! I understand they’re all gray squirrel morphs, but it sure is fun to see such striking color variations. I’m glad to know others have seen this, too!

  5. I saw a squirrel yesterday in Mulmur ONtario Canada it was solid black body with a brite red tail. We have lots of reds and black squirrels here but I never saw one lije this before. The red and black squirrels live in the sane area and maybe breeding together here.

  6. We have one here in Massachusetts as well! I’ve only just starting seeing black squirrels in the last couple of years here, but today I saw one in my yard with a red tail. Startling to say the least!

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