First, I couldn’t believe my eyes. Then I was seeing double! I had never seen a white squirrel before, and there it was, at the bottom of my garden in Stradella Road, frisking around the old sycamore tree. And the very next day there were two – chasing one another up and down the sycamore and round about the railway embankment. The first solo show, on 7 June, and the duet the next day, had me reaching for Google. I learned from their pink eyes that my squirrels are albinos, which makes them extremely rare. According to wildlife experts the odds against a pure white squirrel being born in Britain are one in 100,000. With a grey squirrel population of more than 2.5 million, this would suggest that there are only 25 albinos out there at any one time.
Albinism is a genetic defect that occurs in both humans and animals due to a lack of an enzyme involved in the production of melanin, the pigment responsible for most hair colour. Their coats are white and their eyes pink or blue. According to the White Squirrel Research Institute in the United States, which keeps extensive records, they are recessive to the normal or wild condition, meaning they have to get an albino gene from both parents to be white. A squirrel with one normal melanin gene and one albino gene will appear normal. Several colonies of non-albino white squirrels exist in the United States. They exhibit a rare fur colouration known as leucism that is the result of a recessive gene found within certain Eastern grey squirrel populations.
Olney, Illinois, is known as the “White Squirrel Capital of the World”. These squirrels are so treasured they have the right of way on all streets, with a $500 fine for hitting one. The University of Texas in Austin has a white squirrel population, which spurred a myth of the albino squirrel as a good luck charm. Students believe that if they spot a white squirrel before an exam they will ace it. In Thailand, folklore has it that a Naga shape shifted into a white squirrel was killed by a hunter and was magically transformed into meat equal to 8,000 cartloads. As punishment for eating the tainted flesh the water god Phaya Nak transformed the land into a vast swamp of which Nong Han Kumphawapi lake is a remnant.
Here in Britain the white squirrel has made less of an impression. Maybe we lack some imagination. Surrey has produced a number of white squirrel sightings. There was some excitement in 2003 when two boys playing football accidentally knocked a baby albino squirrel out of a tree. The squirrel and his brother were taken to London Wildcare Centre in Wallington where they spent the (undisclosed) remainder of their days. Another white squirrel lived happily in a Dorking churchyard for a few years before being killed on a nearby road. I could not find any reports of white squirrel sightings in the Dulwich/Herne Hill area, although a friend reports seeing one in Brockwell Park some years ago.
I think my pair must be quite young, perhaps from this Spring’s litter. They certainly appear youthful and puppyish and this is their first appearance. White squirrels may be vulnerable as they lack the camouflage of greys, but I can’t think of many predators in our area that would take one on. They are said to have relatively poor eyesight, but my pair leap and scurry about the high branches with no apparent problems.
And grey squirrels do not appear to be prejudiced against them. My pair often play with a grey companion.