population of white squirrels has brought international attention
to Marionville, a town of southwest Missouri.
You can spot them
from 100 yards away, a flash of white scurrying through the trees. If
people can see a white squirrel so easily, imagine what a target they
make for a hawk, or even a common house cat. It’s a wonder they
survive at all.
And yet, colonies
of white squirrels thrive in several small towns across America, including
Marionville, in southwest Missouri. Although residents of Olney, Ill.,
and Kenton, Tenn., beg to differ, Marionville proudly proclaims itself
the Home of the White Squirrel, with emphasis on “the.”
had people come all the way from Indonesia, from Australia. Many people
come from London, just to see the squirrels,” says Clint Wise,
owner of Marionville’s White Squirrel Hollow Bed and Breakfast.
“When they see them they say, ‘They’re really white.’
They can’t believe it.”
One has to wonder
just how often international travelers journey to Lawrence County to
see squirrels. But the giant white squirrel beaming down from a billboard
at the edge of town leaves no doubt as to Marionville’s claim
to fame. And just to be sure, souvenirs are available at stores around
Club has probably sold 40 to 50 thousand dollars worth of merchandise
the last 15 years — hats, t-shirts, sweatshirts, postcards, ceramic
white squirrels, all kinds of things,” says Jim Smart, whose property
north of town is home to a large concentration of the blazingly white
resident Jim Smart sets out feed to encourage white squirrels.
He says 50 to 75 white squirrels live on his property north of
town. When he gets too many he traps them and moves them to other
parts of Marionville.
Along with other
members of the Marionville Lions Club, Smart has put a lot of effort
into encouraging and protecting the town’s white squirrels. The
club builds squirrel den boxes and distributes them to residents to
hang on trees. Members also planted nearly 2,500 nut-bearing trees to
provide habitat for future generations of squirrels. They also encourage
residents — particularly those living at the park-like Ozark Methodist
Manor retirement complex in the center of town — to feed Marionville’s
Smart and other
members of the Lions Club have gone so far as to trap feral cats that
prey on squirrels and take them to the animal shelter. They’ve
also captured less-desirable grey squirrels and run them out of town,
releasing them in the woods.
At his own place,
Smart feeds the squirrels 365 days a year. “I use about a ton
of sunflower seeds a season,” he says.
Smart says he has
50 to 75 white squirrels on his property. When he gets too many he traps
them and takes them into town where they’re safe from most predators
and protected by city ordinance.
against the law to destroy a white squirrel. It’s a $1,000 fine,”
says Wise, recalling with some pride the ordinance enacted when he was
With efforts like
this, it’s no mystery how Marionville’s white squirrels
“In the wild you don’t get colonies of white squirrels,”
says Lonnie Hanson, a resource scientist with the Missouri Department
of Conservation. “With a city like that, with fewer predators
and somewhat of an artificial situation, they just seem to be able to
proliferate and do pretty well.”
But that does not
explain how white squirrels came to live in Marionville in the first
They really don’t.” Smart says. “The town was incorporated
in 1854 and there were white squirrels here when they settled.”
One theory is that
the squirrels escaped from a traveling circus, a notion Smart rejects.
to Marionville can usually find white squirrels during early morning
and evening hours near the Ozark Methodist Manor retirement complex
at the center of town.
any circus through here in 1830 or ’40,” he says incredulously.
Another theory holds that an early settler known for experimenting with
plant hybrids and crossbreeding of animals is responsible.
It’s not surprising
that people can’t agree on how the squirrels got here. People
can’t even decide whether the squirrels are albinos or just an
unusual breed. For the record, Smart says they’re albinos, with
pink eyes and skin. Sometimes, though, he says the squirrel’s
eyes appear dark simply due to the way light strikes the eye.
As unusual as white
squirrels are, Marionville is not alone in its distinction. John Stencel
is a retired zoology instructor from Olney Central College in Olney,
Ill., another community that stakes its fame on white squirrels. He
says although several towns across North America have a few white squirrels,
only three have colonies, which he defines as a steady population of
at least 25.
While Kenton, Tenn.,
is often named among contenders to the white squirrel throne, Smart
dismisses that community’s bona fides.
a little squirrel. They don’t look like ours,” he says.
No, the battle for
white squirrel bragging rights seems clearly pitched between Marionville
a celebration this past year: 100 years of the white squirrel,”
Smart says. “Well, we’re long before that. We claim that
they got them from here.”
Olney City Clerk
Belinda Henton scoffs at that accusation. “Do you really think
that somebody is going to go to Missouri and come back to Illinois with
squirrels? I don’t believe it.”
run deep over white squirrels. Although people in both Marionville and
Olney brush off any suggestion of ill will between the two towns, defenders
of both camps are sure of their own white squirrel superiority.“Lots
of times you hear that Marionville has more squirrels than us. I don’t
believe that,” says Stencel, who now lives in Iowa. “I’ve
been there and I didn’t see too many. Of course, a lot of people
have come to Olney and not found too many.”
Indeed, Smart tells
an almost identical tale of visiting Marionville’s rival to the
billboard welcoming visitors to town features a photograph of
one of Marionville's unusual white squirrels.
“We were at
Olney, Ill., this summer,” Smart says. “We did see three
or four white squirrels but we didn’t see them anywhere like what
we got around here.
down some of these streets, you’ll see 25,” he says. “They’ll
be busy. They’ll be in the yards. You’ll just see them everywhere.
They’re gathering nuts and burying them.”
Every year Olney
musters an army of volunteers from the college and conducts an official
count. This year’s tally: 108. No one knows for sure how many
white squirrels call Marionville home. Wise says there may be 200 in
town, not including those out at Smart’s place. Smart thinks there’s
quite a few more.
However many there
are, they certainly attract a lot of attention. But Smart, who has hosted
two tour buses of squirrel seekers at his home, says people don’t
always believe their eyes.
guys from Oklahoma came by the office one time and said, ‘Where’s
those blankety-blank white squirrels.’ They were rough old boys,”
recalls Smart, who invited the visitors to follow him to his home.
got out and looked at them. One looked at the other guy and said, ‘We’re
not going to tell this.’ They didn’t think anybody would