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It’s in your nature: Wildlife color phases

n my winter and early spring outings I usually take a shortcut and drive through Parryville to check on possible waterfowl and/or bald eagle sightings at the Parryville Dam.

On one of those mornings this year, a group of squirrels jumped from a bird feeder and scurried across the street in front of my vehicle. To my surprise and delight, one of them was a black squirrel. Actually that “black squirrel” was a black phase gray squirrel.

In my many, many years of outdoor snooping and viewing, this is only the second black phase I have seen in Carbon County. The other one was in Franklin Township, and I actually got to see it over two years. On my only Canada fishing outing with my late father we actually saw a number of these “black squirrels” at that lodge area. In doing a bit of reading it appears that the black phase of squirrels is more common farther north in our state and country.

Color phases don’t only occur in gray squirrels. In Pennsylvania, our largest carnivore, the black bear, has a cinnamon phase. This color bear (reddish brown) occurs in less than 1 percent of the state’s black bears. Latest estimates place about 15,000 bears in our commonwealth. In my lifetime I have seen between 100 to 150 bears, and all have been black.

In reptiles and amphibians, both timber rattlesnakes and red-backed salamanders have two phases. Our screech owl has both red and gray phases.

In fact, phases in animals do not make them a separate species. Case in point, if a red phase and gray phase screech owl breed, their owlets could be all gray, all red, or both red and gray phases. Our state bird, the ruffed grouse, has a red and gray phase with almost no gray phases in Pennsylvania. It is much more common in the western mountains of the U.S.

The eastern coyote found throughout our area and state has a number of color phases. I have seen a blond, grayish/red, and one nearly black. Two raptors, rather uncommon in our area, have color phases as well. The gyrfalcon has three, while the rough-legged hawk has two.

Keep your eyes “peeled” for red-backed salamanders as they become active this spring and if nature snooping quite a bit, look for phases of our coyote as well. No matter, enjoy, enjoy.

Test Your Outdoor Knowledge: This summer Generation X of ______ may be emerging by the millions. A. periodical cicadas, B. lacewings, C. spotted lanternflies, D. Zombies.

Last Week’s Trivia Answer: Unfortunately, millions of eastern hemlocks were felled just for their bark.

Contact Barry Reed at breed71@gmail.com.

A timber rattlesnake has two color phases, yellow shown here, and a black phase. BARRY REED/SPECIAL TO THE TIMES NEWS
This red phase screech owl was nesting in one of my screech owl nest boxes.
This gray phase screech owl had three red phase screech owls and one red phase screech owl in her nest.
Gray squirrels have two color phases. Nearly all the populations locally are gray phase.
I observed this black phase gray squirrel in Parryville over the past few months.
Red-backed salamanders are probably the most common salamander in our region.
The lead-backed salamander is just a color phase of the red-backed salamander.
The eastern coyote, now found in every Pennsylvania county, is most commonly found in its gray phase.
I'm betting that for anyone who's seen a black bear it was in its typical black phase. Less than 1 percent are a cinnamon phase.
Remember though that birds like cardinals and this male harrier use sexual dichromatism where males and females are colored differently. This is not a type of color phase.