The wildlife of Ottawa

July 13, 2012 • 12:27 pm

Well, Ottawa is hardly in the wilds, but here are a few snaps of local wildlife I took during the Evolution meetings.

On the Parliament grounds, there were rabbits feeding brazenly in the open, including a mother and baby:

And the grounds were crawling with black squirrels, a particularly attractive mutant form of the gray squirrel:

According to Wikipedia, black squirrels are common in Ontario. They carry a semidominant mutation, one copy of which makes the squirrel brownish-black and two copies (a homozygote) make it jet black.  The animal above seems to be a homozygote.

Wikipedia adds:

The black subgroup seems to have been dominant throughout North America prior to the arrival of Europeans in the 16th century, since their dark colour helped them hide in virgin forests which tended to be very dense and shaded. As time passed, hunting and deforestation led to biological advantages for grey coloured individuals.

Well, I’m not sure how much science backs that statement up.  Did anyone do experiments showing that black squirrels are more cryptic in virgin forests and gray ones in open forests?

Regardless, I also met another mutant: a miniature horse named Rosie, whose job is to pull small carts of children in the Byward Market.  Her keeper was taking her for a walk around dinnertime:

I had a tête-à-tête with Rosie; she was very affectionate.  I’m told by a flight attendant that some blind people use miniature horses as guide animals instead of dogs, for the horses can have a working life of thirty years as opposed to less than a decade. In fact, guide horses are allowed on airplanes!  They are constrained to sit (or stand) in the bulkhead. I bet you didn’t know that. I would love to see a tiny horse on a plane.

In case you’re wondering, here’s how guide horses fly:

Dan Shaw and his guide horse flying on a plane. From

43 thoughts on “The wildlife of Ottawa

    1. I’ve lived in suburban Ottawa for 30+ years, and when I first came, black squirrels were by far in the majority, with only an occasional grey. But these days, it’s about 60-40 black:grey (and I’ve seen the reddish ones too). And I have bunnies in my yard too – I normal see adults, but recently saw a much smaller one who I assumed was young. Then there was the pair of turdus migratorius who raised 2 batches of young in a nest they built under my solar panel. (We drew the line at wasps though, and recently dispatched a nest they had built, also under the solar panel.)

  1. I don’t think I can contribute anything more intellectual than: OH wow, that is adorable!

    Does anyone know how they compare intelligence-wise to guide dogs?

    1. Horses are right up there with elephants, dolphins and chimpanzees, ranking higher than dogs (and cat’s, I’m afraid to say)

        1. Indeed it does but you know how it is around here, it’s not just horse-play to throw the cat amongst the pigeons like that..especially with Ceiling cat watching over us

      1. I wouldn’t say that. Their intelligence is quite different from that of predator species such as dogs. They learn routines very quickly but it’s next to impossible for them to unlearn one. And they don’t do selective disobedience very well, either.

  2. I want some black squirrels! All I have are very fat grey squirrels – I put so much food out that I’ve probably initiated a hypertensive condition in the neighborhood wildlife.

  3. Horses on a plane. That is awesome.

    Local squirrels, not black unfortunately, like to tease our cat. Just as long as there is a sliding glass door between them. Poor cat really really wants to get closer to the squirrel. And she yells at me like it is my fault.

  4. Black squirrels are very common in Manhattan parks, particularly in Stuyvesant Town/ Peter Cooper Village. Allegedly the black ones are becoming much commoner. The only predator I have seen take them is the occasional urban red-tailed hawk: after a death the squirrels seem much more wary and jumpy and alarm call for hours. They pay almost no attention to the wheezing, fat lapdogs that lollop ineffectually after them however.

      1. Ah! So you kitteh-senses did tingle in Ottawa after all, just earlier!

        Lovely essay; glad you pointed me to it. Passing it on.

  5. London, Ontario has some interesting variants on the black Eastern grey squirrel – we have boat loads of them with reddish tails. In my casual observations, black and grey squirrels seem to be about equal in frequency.

  6. According to Wikipedia, black squirrels are common in Ontario.
    Black squirrels can also be found on the campus of Northwestern University, near the genetics lab building.

  7. I love me some braised bunnies!

    In other news, this post is very, very disappointing. I thought that horses flew like Pegasus!

    Seriously, I’m totally bummed out. I mean, all this time TriStar Productions has been lying to us! What a way to start the weekend.

    1. I think they used “poetic license”.

      Somehow that doesn’t involve the right to take liars to court, but the right to court liars. So what is “poetic justice” about?

      I’m confused now.

  8. The black squirrels are also predominent in the Saugatuck Michigan area where there used to be a huge dense dark forest. Now there is mostly only sand dunes in those areas. The forests wood was used to rebuild Chicago after the Chicago fire, and another city that had burnt down at the same time in Wisconsin

  9. Black/grey squirrels showed up first here in Stanley Park, presumably as ex-pets.

    The situation was fairly stable for many decades, until city council was convinced that they should pass a no-kill rule to regulate the pest control companies.

    What then to do with the live-trapped animals? They were instructed to release them in rural areas of neighbouring municipalities. Given the total lack of supervision by anyone, squirrels, skunks, opossums, etc were dumped in parks in the various bedroom communities.

    Great business model for controlling invasive species. I’ve always wondered if a pest control company had a hand in the introduction of that no-kill law.

    1. Miniature horses are horses bred to be small. Ponies have different physical characteristics – particularly noticeable in their proportions, particularly the size and shape of the heads and the length of their legs relative their body size, but also in their manes, coats, sturdiness of their legs and feet, and a few others.

  10. Did your hosts take you to the world-famed Botanic Gardens to admire the poutine trees, the tortiere vines, and the butter-tart bushes?

    Incidentally, black squirrels are also common in Vancouver, in the “West End” near Stanley Park. The Vancouver version is quite at ease climbing stories up highrise apartment buildings with suitably rough finishes. They like what they find on balconies.

  11. I’m told the DC area also has black squirrels. They’re so strange! I definitely did a double-take the first time I saw one in Ottawa. Kind of like the first time I saw a ground squirrel in Davis. We also came across Rosie (but didn’t know her as such) while walking to lunch on Thursday. We were wondering what that was all about – now we know!

    1. Yes, the DC area has both color morphs. An interesting fact about squirrels in DC – Lafayette park has the highest density of the eastern grey squirrel ever recorded!

      Last year I was in DC and I made a special trip to Lafayette park to check out the uber high density of squirrels. I was hoping to see them everywhere, climbing over everything. Instead I saw two! Bummer.

  12. Jerry, I’ve been a fan of your blog for a while and I sometimes lurk in the comments, but I’ve not yet contributed. Your questions about the grey squirrel are too compelling to pass up!

    I did my undergraduate research on the color morph proportion of the eastern grey squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) in southeast Michigan. It was a simple research project and not all that rigorous, but I did do a lot of reading through the literature.

    As you know there is a lot of research on color polymorphisms in animals, but surprisingly very little on the grey squirrel in particular. I find it surprising because it is such a common animal that is relatively easy to observe. During my research, a paper called “The Genetic Basis of Melanism in the Gray Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis)” was published in 2009, which is probably the source of the statement from the Wikipedia article that you cite. I wish it had come out earlier because until then the genetics involved was all speculation. With regards to the proportion of the black to grey in the population, previous work (albeit not the best) has shown that the black morph is dominant in the northern part of its range and the opposite is true in the southern part of its range. Further studies have shown that there are some physiological differences between the two that allows the black morph to maintain a higher body temperature than the grey when the ambient temperature is low. Any effect from solar heat gain was ruled out, so it does really seem that there is something more to it than color alone. This could explain the proportion gradient across latitudes, although someone like Larry Moran would probably dispute this 🙂 Studies on behavioral differences between the morphs have never shown any differences. These studies are quite humorous to read as they involved running at squirrels with a dog on a leash and measuring their “wariness” amongst other things. Some work was done to try to show that a possible advantage to the grey morph is that it exhibits countershading, that is having a white belly and darker back obscuring the shadow cast by its own body and presumably making it harder to detect by predators. Nothing conclusive came from this. Also, some good work was done with color polymorphisms in the fox squirrel (S. niger) in the southern US that may have shown that dorsal melanism is adaptive after wildfires. However, in the grey squirrel no studies have shown (or have even been conducted, to my knowledge) that the grey morph has any advantage in deforested areas or under pressure from hunting. In Michigan, as was fashionable in the late 19th century, squirrels were hunted almost to extirpation and subsequent laws stopped the hunting of squirrels. According to historical documents I’ve read, the hunting ban was never officially lifted for the black morph of the grey squirrel. This may have caused a shift in the proportion and may be one source for the statement on Wikipedia.

    Sorry about the very long comment! I was and I still am very interested in this topic. Maybe when I’m done with my Master’s I’ll continue my undergrad research in some more advanced form through Ph.D work. Any labs out there interested? 🙂

  13. I am in Toronto myself. Hardly in the wilds either, but it is truly surprising as to how much wildlife can be found here.

    For my field work, I am running around in the parks most every day except during winter, and I am amazed all the time. I am also often dismayed at what people do in order to hasten nature’s destruction.

    One of my current favourite villains are lycra-clad cyclists. I think it would be good nature-conservancy policy to lock these people up in closed institutions.

  14. Hey

    I was in Ottowa last week and I saw this man with his miniature horses 🙂 I’m really glad I found your article here because I’ve always wondered about the black squirrels!
    I’d like to ask you if I could use your photo (with the the miniature horse) in my article about Ottowa? I realized I didn’t take any pics of the horses… If not nevermind, I’ve found another blog to add on my list 🙂



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