White House, black squirrels: How 8 'desirous' Canadian rodents ended up overrunning Washington

The White House lawn is a most welcoming stomping ground for some descendants of immigrants. They're not people, but Canada's eye-catching black squirrels.

Popular creatures get 'unfettered access to the president' through White House fence

Black squirrels, originally donated from Canada to Washington, D.C., in 1902, now account for about half of the city's squirrel population. They are a source of fascination, primarily for American tourists more used to the Eastern grey squirrel common in warmer climates. (Jason Lowther/CBC)

There's some prime acreage behind a fence in downtown Washington, D.C., where the descendants of foreigners have no trouble taking up residency: Donald Trump's immaculately manicured White House lawn.

The eye-catching occupiers, an object of fascination in the District, are the capital's beloved black squirrels. 

They come from a line of Canadian immigrants, gifted to Washington's National Zoo from Ontario's former department of Crown lands during the Theodore Roosevelt administration more than a century ago.

And, well, they're kind of a thing.

In Adams Morgan, a bastion of D.C. nightlife, the Black Squirrel bar takes its name from the inky tree-dwellers.

A black squirrel snacks while looking toward the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on the White House grounds. it is a descendant of squirrels donated from a provincial park in Ontario. (Jason Lowther/CBC)

Richard Thorington, the Smithsonian Institution's late chief "squirrelologist," even co-wrote a book, Squirrels: The Animal Answer Guide, that explores the black squirrels' colour by way of their Canadian provenance. "Because they were considered 'unusual,'" he writes, they "were brought to the National Zoo from Canada, where all-black squirrels are common."

American tourists more used to seeing the common Eastern grey species regularly photograph the jet-black squirrels. Children squeal as they chase the rodents around Pennsylvania Avenue.

"Aren't they cool?" Kathy Randant from Massachusetts exclaimed in Lafayette Park, as her daughters watched one feast on tree nuts a few hundred metres from the president's backyard. 

"I have never seen a black squirrel before! My husband from Oregon can't stop talking about them."

The black variety, sometimes called melanistic, now accounts for about half of Washington's squirrel population. How that happened is a 116-year-old story.

A 1902 congressional report from Samuel P. Langley, secretary of the Smithsonian, lists "animals received in exchange" as numbering eight black squirrels from Thomas W. Gibson, Ontario's former commissioner of Crown lands. The original eight were taken from Rondeau Provincial Park in Chatham-Kent.

Smithsonian records dating back to 1900 reveal how much Frank Baker, superintendent of the National Zoo, apparently coveted Canada's black squirrels. He requested the animals from several Ontario addresses in Toronto, Ottawa, Windsor, Wolfe Island, London and Bracebridge.

"Dear Sir, I am very desirous of obtaining a few pairs of black squirrels for the National Zoological Park and take the liberty of writing to ask whether you can give me the address of any person who could probably furnish these animals," Baker wrote repeatedly.

A letter dated 1900 sent to an address in Ontario from National Zoo director Frank Baker requests a supply of black squirrels from Canada. (Smithsonian Institution)

As The Globe newspaper reported in April 1902, Gibson agreed.

The article, disclosing a bit of editorial bias, states: "There are no squirrels in the south which can compare with the beautiful animal which is indigenous to Ontario. The squirrels are very numerous in Rondeau Park, and although they are exceedingly difficult to capture an effort will be made to send some of them to Washington."

A 1906 item in The National Tribune newspaper in Washington, D.C., describes the National Zoo's black squirrels. (National Tribune archives)

In return, Ontario received Eastern grey squirrels from Washington. Rondeau Park's caretaker, Isaac Gardiner, gave an update to the Ontario Legislature in 1902: "The grey squirrels sent here from the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C., are doing nicely."

An excerpt from a 1902 report to the Ontario Legislature by Isaac Gardiner of Rondeau Provincial Park. (Government of Ontario)

In Washington, though, black squirrels didn't just do well; they became a source of civic pride.

The May 1906 edition of Washington's National Tribune wrote admiringly of two Canadian black squirrels held at the National Zoo, noting that although they were "nothing more nor less than the common grey squirrel," the "pure black" specimens were "rare and curious." 

Local fascination with their exotic, lustrous coats comes through in the newspaper's description: "The pair at the Zoo are jet black — so black that they appear shiny — with an exceedingly thick and heavy fur for protection against the Canadian winters."

A black squirrel, rarely seen so far south except in D.C., scampers through Lafayette Park, with the White House in the background. Several were released in the early 1900s, possibly to boost their population. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

"That's what made D.C. unique; that we had these black squirrels. Literally everywhere, you would see these squirrels," AJ Fastow, owner of the Black Squirrel pub, said. "Even in my backyard, we've got these squirrels from Canada."

According to Washington lore, Fastow says, the donor squirrels from Canada "escaped" from the National Zoo, eventually breeding in the city proper. 

The official account from the Smithsonian is that 18 black squirrels were released in 1906 into the northwest corner of the zoo grounds. But officials didn't anticipate they would spread into the city, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says. It's possible the animals were originally liberated in a bid to restore a squirrel population "decimated through hunting," according to the Washington Post.

AJ Fastow is the owner of the Black Squirrel bar in D.C.'s Adams Morgan neighbourhood. The pub was named after the animal as a source of civic pride, he says. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

Black squirrels were spotted all around D.C.'s urban environs in short order. The collections manager at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History confirmed the museum has black squirrel carcasses dating back to at least 1918.

The "black colour morphs" were originally common in colder climates due to climate tolerance. They are rarely seen as far south as Washington, explained self-described "squirrel doc" John Koprowski, a wildlife conservation professor at the University of Arizona.

Black squirrels eventually made their way to parts of Virginia and even North Carolina.

The black squirrels make themselves at home around the trees on the White House grounds. (Jason Lowther/CBC)

"The black squirrels that run throughout the Washington, D.C., area … are probably derived from those two friendly exchanges back in the turn of the last century," said Koprowski, who recalls first seeing the subspecies on the National Zoo grounds as a student in the 1980s.

"I was fascinated."

Nobody really puts up a fuss nowadays that a horde of descendants of immigrants have basically overrun the grounds in the shadow of the president's executive mansion. Ronald Reagan was known to sprinkle handfuls of acorns stored in his desk for the White House critters. 

A black squirrel eats a piece of cracker dropped by a tourist at the north fence of the White House in 2014. (Jim Bourg/Reuters)

Black squirrels "from our friendly neighbours to the north" are perfectly at home on the property, having endeared themselves to the city over time, Koprowski said.

"If you've ever visited the White House, there's a big fence around it that keeps human out," he said. Squirrels, on the other hand, "have unfettered access to the president of the United States at any time."


Matt Kwong


Matt Kwong was the Washington-based correspondent for CBC News. He previously reported for CBC News as an online journalist in New York and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at: @matt_kwong