Have You Ever Seen a White Squirrel?

These animals are extremely rare in North America—unless you visit some key places.

Squirrels are often thought of as pests, but white squirrels can become prized members of a community. Tony Campbell/Shutterstock

While there are two known species of white squirrel in Asia, there aren’t any in North America, so if you’ve spotted an all-white or mostly white squirrel in the wild here, you’ve seen something quite rare. But to understand why, some background is in order.

Most of the white squirrels seen in North America are genetic color variants of the eastern grey squirrel.

For some of these eastern grey squirrels, their unique coats are caused by albinism, a congenital disorder characterized by little or no production of melanin. This lack of melanin makes albino animals' eyes appear pink or red, the color of its blood vessels.

Squirrels with completely white coats and dark eyes, however, are likely leucistic. Leucism involves a partial loss of pigmentation caused by a recessive gene and it’s often mistaken for albinism, but while leucistic animals have white, pale or patchy coloration, their eye color is unaffected.

But then there are the white squirrels that aren’t albino or leucistic.

“Still rarer seems to be the type of coat pattern we have here in Brevard, North Carolina. The coat is mostly white but there is a distinctive (gray) head patch and dorsal stripe that broadens in the shoulder region,” writes Robert Glesener, research director of the White Squirrel Research Institute. “There is some evidence that this pattern is inherited.”

The Institute's website goes on to say that Brevard's white squirrels are unique because their coats feature a distinctive head patch and dorsal stripe that broadens in the shoulder region: "The head patch can be solid, horseshoe or doughnut shaped; it may resemble a triangle, a diamond, deer tracks or even a widow’s peak (Count Dracula)."

albino eastern grey squirrel in Olney, Illinois
An albino eastern grey squirrel in Olney, Illinois. Tony Campbell/Shutterstock

Where Can You See Them?

Eastern grey squirrels are a common species, so you could technically spot a white squirrel anywhere in the animal’s native range.

The squirrels inhabit the eastern and midwestern U.S. and the eastern provinces of Canada, but certain cities and towns are known for their large population of white squirrels, including Brevard, North Carolina; Marionville, Missouri; Olney, Illinois; Kenton, Tennessee; and Exeter, Ontario. For residents of these communities, seeing a white squirrel is an ordinary occurrence. In Exeter, for example, it's said that, until the 1980s, many locals didn't realize white squirrels were uncommon until a "new resident told them just how unique they were."

But your odds of seeing a white squirrel are higher in Brevard. Glesener’s research has found that almost one in three of the city’s squirrels has white fur, meaning it has the highest percent white of any known squirrel colony.

In many of the places where white squirrels thrive, their colonies can be traced back to pet white squirrels that were released or escaped into the wild.

In the case of Brevard’s white squirrels, a local resident received a pair of white squirrels—which had escaped from a Florida carnival—as a gift in 1949. Eventually, one of these squirrels made another jailbreak and began breeding in the wild.

A white squirrel peeks out from behind a tree at Brevard College in Brevard, N.C.
A white squirrel peeks out from behind a tree at Brevard College in Brevard, North Carolina. Laura Moss/MNN

Why Do They Flourish in Certain Areas?

Albinism can often be a detriment to an animal’s survival. White fur makes it easier for predators to spot albino animals and more likely that their families and social groups will exclude them.

So, why do squirrels with white fur thrive in certain areas?

First of all, there’s some evidence that in certain circumstances, white coloration could be advantageous because predators may not identify an all-white creature as prey.

Secondly, locations with large populations of white squirrels tend to be cities and towns where predators are limited.

However, the biggest factor that contributes to the squirrels’ survival is that they often receive some degree of protection from residents. When locals value white squirrels over their gray counterparts, they select against the animals’ normal coloration, and after a few generations, genes for white fur become more common, allowing white squirrels to flourish.

While eastern grey squirrels are often considered pests, white ones can become prized and even celebrated. In many places, the squirrels are a draw for visitors, bringing in steady tourism money.

In Brevard, white squirrels are so prized that in 1986, the city council passed an ordinance establishing a sanctuary for the animals, and today they’re celebrated at the annual White Squirrel Festival (temporarily postponed). No white squirrels can be kept in captivity, according to the city's ordinance, and an annual White Squirrel Count each fall tries to keep tabs on their population.

If a white squirrel captures your interest, you can "adopt" it through the White Squirrel Research Institute by making a $25 donation. This money goes toward funding wildlife rehabilitation work in Brevard and surrounding Transylvania County, North Carolina.