There’s a rumor going around that 2014 is going to be a dreaded Black Squirrel Winter for the N.C. High Country. I am shocked that, having grown up in Watauga County, N.C., I’m just becoming aware of this phenomenon, what the Native Americans referred to as Black Squirrel Winter or Winter of Sorrows. It sounds so dark and ominous, like the Winter is Coming motto from the George R.R. Martin’s epic fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire. In my head I picture the ginger-headed House of Stark-of-the-Blue-Ridge-Escarpment whispering “Beware the Black Squirrel Winter” to one another, warning of the 16-year winter ahead, and the army of black squirrels that prey on human flesh.
The black squirrel is a darker version of the eastern grey squirrel, the result of a mutant pigment gene. They can be described as a melanistic variety. Melanism, of course, is the opposite of albinism. They evolved in old growth forests, which had much darker cover. Deforestation turned these squirrels grey: with the loss of the old growth forests, the black squirrels lost their evolutionary advantage, and grey became a better form of camouflage. Still, they’ve maintained steady populations in different areas of the country, including urban areas like Washington, D.C., where fewer predators make camouflage less essential for survival. They’ve also thrived in colder places like Ontario and the U.S. Northeast because they can retain heat in the winter much better than their grey cousins. This is probably why they don’t mind the unusually brutal North Carolina Winters when we have them.
The Choctaw had stories about the black squirrel being responsible for solar eclipses. Apparently the rodent liked to nibble on the sun. Villagers would try to frighten the squirrel away so that it would stop eating the sun; woman and children would shout and bang pots, while the men shot their weapons into the distance as if hunting for game.
If only frightening the black squirrels away could enlarge the sun, melting all the snow and ice. Winter is coming….