“Think like a white squirrel.”
This is not a phrase I had ever imagined using, but it popped into my head around 8 am, after I’d already been on the prowl for a good hour. I was in Olney, a city of 9,000 in southeastern Illinois famous for its albino squirrels that roam the parks and neighborhoods.
I knew there were roughly 100 white squirrels in town – Olney conducts an annual survey in which volunteer residents canvas the streets together to get an accurate tally – but I also knew that it was sometimes difficult to find them. They tend to be active during sunrise, so I left the hotel early to drive around town and check things out.
And I wasn’t having any luck. “Where would I be if I was a white squirrel?,” I asked myself. Eventually, most likely through sheer dumb luck rather than any superior tactical planning on my part, I happened upon one of the famous squirrels and observed it in its natural habitat.
The search for white squirrels in Olney
I got up super early and headed first to Olney City Park, which is ground zero for white squirrel sightings. Initially, I saw several gray squirrels running around, which I took as a good sign.
There were a surprising number of people up and about at that early hour, plenty of joggers and dog walkers. But no white squirrels. As I walked around, I overheard an older couple say “The squirrels aren’t out today.” Oh no!
The gray squirrels seemed to have taken over the center of the park. So where would I go if I was a white squirrel? If I was banished from the prime real estate, I might head to the picnic shetler area. So I drove over there, but no luck. No movement of any kind in that area.
Next, I went past the nearby cemetery. Cemeteries are often a good place for wildlife, and indeed this one was. Not for squirrels, but for deer. I observed a family of four deer tiptoeing through the headstones.
The deer were a cool sight, but they weren’t the reason I came to Olney. After driving through a few more side streets, I was up to 9 gray squirrel sightings, but no whites, which was mildly frustrating. I once spotted an endangered California condor when there were only 322 left in the entire world, but somehow I can’t find a single white squirrel in Olney?
It was time to head to Miller’s Grove, a wooded area across town near East Fork Lake. Once again, plenty of gray squirrels, but no whites. I did, however, observe squirrel nests high up in the towering trees. For some reason it never occurred to me that squirrels make nests in trees; I had never stopped to contemplate where they slept.
This clump of leaves and branches in the middle is a squirrel nest:
Miller’s Grove was a strikeout on this day, so it was back to driving through the residential streets. As I continued my search, I was taunted by all the signs around town celebrating the squirrels. There were squirrel crossing signs, squirrel logos on police and municipal vehicles, and squirrels on business storefronts.
I got excited as I passed a tennis court and saw something white on the ground, but it turned out to be a piece of paper. False alarm.
Finally, I decided to head back to City Park, and there it was. A lone white squirrel, scurrying around the park with a bunch of grays. White squirrel success!
This critter had a lot of energy. He climbed on fences and picnic tables, sat up in a tree nibbling on something for a while, then ran to the other side of the park, eventually getting within 20 feet of my car as I sat at the curb and observed.
I watched the albino for at least 30 minutes. The other squirrels interacted with him just the same as they did the gray squirrels. This was an enlightened squirrel society in which they don’t judge each other based on fur color.
I never did see another albino squirrel on this day, but I was just happy to see one, since hot summer days can be tricky. Autumn is considered the best time of year to see the white squirrels since they are actively building up their cache of nuts for the winter season.
Tributes to the albino squirrels in Olney
Nobody knows for sure how the white squirrels came to Olney. The curious can check out the city’s official website for the entire backstory. A lot of tourists come to Olney specifically to see the albino squirrels, especially when passing through on road trips. Olney is conveniently located within a few hours’ driving distance of St. Louis, Louisville, and Indianapolis.
If you make it to Olney (perhaps for their 175th anniversary next summer?), stop into the White Squirrel Shoppe, which offers a wide range of squirrel-related gifts, including socks, wine bottle holders, playing cards, stuffed animals, figurines, and Christmas ornaments.
The white squirrels are a huge deal in Olney. They are protected by law here and have the right of way on all streets. Olney encourages residents to set up feeding boxes, and once a year the town gives out free corn to refill those boxes.
And if you happen to visit on a bad day and you can’t find any real albino squirrels, don’t worry – there are lots and lots of replicas around town. You can’t escape the white squirrels. And why would you want to?