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Black-squirrel population unique here

Dispatch/Argus Photo By Terry Herbig

The proliferation of black squirrels is unique to the Quad-Cities. This critter was photographed snacking on corn in a back yard in Moline.

Visitors to the Quad-Cities may think they're going ``nuts'' when they first see black squirrels scampering past.

``When I first moved here, I thought: `My gosh, what are they,'|'' Duane Chanay, a biological science professor at Black Hawk College in Moline, said.

People new to the area generally are ``blown away'' by them, Augustana College public information director Kai Swanson said. ``They make the Quad-Cities unique,'' he said.

Actually, black squirrels aren't totally uncommon, but the large population of them in the Quad-Cities is unique, Mr. Chanay said. They are simply a ``color-phase'' of the more-common gray squirrel, he said.

``But we have a larger population of black squirrels than anywhere else I'm aware of,'' Mr. Chanay said.

Augustana College English professor and holder of the Conrad Bergendoff Chair in the Humanities, Roald Tweet, also said black squirrels were the first thing out of the ordinary he noticed when he came to the Quad-Cities in the 1960s.

``Black squirrels are one of the great things in the Quad-Cities,'' he said. ``They are among the things we point out to visitors.''

Mr. Tweet agrees the large population in specific areas such as Augustana College and Lincoln Park is unusual. ``Where there are black squirrels, there are a lot of them,'' he said. ``You don't see them in Clinton, or in LeClaire. But they are definitely the dominant squirrel around the Augustana campus.''

Several stories about where black squirrels came from have circulated over the years. Mr. Tweet recounted two squirrel tales, which suggested they were imported from Europe by B.J. Palmer or a Rock Island Arsenal commander.

A Palmer family member was responsible for introducing them to the Quad-Cities, and a tie-in exists to the Arsenal, according to a book of memoirs titled ``The Palmers.''

``A pair of black squirrels was presented to D.D. (Palmer) by a grateful patient from Cambridge, Massachusetts,'' according to an excerpt from the book. ``D.D. kept them in a cage in his office building at the corner of 2nd and Brady until finally one day he mentioned the pair were being poorly treated -- living in a cage -- and wondered if there wasn't someplace he could let them loose.''

Noted Davenport banker George Bechtel suggested calling Lt. Col. Stanhope Blunt, commander of the Rock Island Arsenal at the time, to see if Arsenal Island could serve as a new home for the squirrels.

Col. Blunt said he would be happy to have the squirrels, and after a proper ceremony, they were released on the island, according to the book.

The book suggested some of the black squirrels probably escaped the confines of Arsenal Island by jumping across ice floes on the Mississippi River when it was frozen and populated other areas in Rock Island.

-- By Leon Lagerstam (February 9, 1998)

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