DECATUR - Dr. Ronald Brownfield did a double-take at the sight of an unusual fox squirrel this summer near Edward and North streets.
"At first, I didn't think it had a tail," he said, "then it moved from the house it was in front of, and I could see that its tail was so white, it looked like somebody dipped it in peroxide."
Brownfield was eventually able to identify at least two squirrels with white tails apparently living near his Decatur dental practice and capture them on film.
Showing the photographs to some of his patients, however, produced yet another surprise: Other people had seen white-tailed squirrels in such places as along MacArthur Road near First Christian Church and in Macon.
"One lady said she had seen one but didn't tell anybody because she was afraid they would think she was nuts," Brownfield said.
Published reports indicate white-tailed squirrels also have been spotted in Lincoln, Peoria and DeKalb.
Joyce Hofmann, senior research scientist with the Illinois Natural History Survey, said she'd never heard of this before this year.
"There are albino squirrels, so I assume it's a genetic mutation of some sort rather than an environmentally caused problem," Hofmann said.
Jeff Tish, program services manager for the Macon County Conservation District, said he gets one or two reports of white-tailed squirrels every year, but he has gotten three or four this year.
"There seem to be more this year, but I don't know the scientific reason," he said.
Tish said one even spent some time at the window on wildlife at the Rock Springs Conservation Area's center earlier in the summer but hasn't been around for some time.
Brownfield hasn't seen his white-tailed squirrels for a while, either.
Tish said a female fox squirrel can live as long as 12Â½ years, but one with a white tail would be much easier for predators to spot.
"A reddish squirrel may not look camouflaged to us when it's sitting at our bird feeder, but it blends in with the ground, especially in the fall," he said. "If it had a white flag like that, it would be a much easier object to pick up."
Theresa Churchill can be reached at email@example.com or 421-7978.