DEAR JOAN: I was at my sister's in Los Altos Hills a couple of months ago and noticed a completely black squirrel. I live in Walnut Creek and I have larger, brown squirrels. Was it a freak?
DEAR MIKE: Mutant might be a better word to describe it. It is a melanistic variety of the gray squirrel, which can carry a mutant pigment gene. If a squirrel has two mutant genes, it will be black.
Black squirrels are more common on the East Coast, and they are becoming more so in Northern California. It's not unusual to see a mixed litter of black squirrels and gray ones.
DEAR JOAN: My mom, who lives in Concord, is having a real problem with raccoons using one area of her nicely landscaped backyard next to a sitting area that she uses for teatime, lunchtime and so on. It really smells bad, especially in the summer.
We've used Critter Ridder, both liquid spray and granules, with little result. Would you have any better ideas?
We do have a fig tree and persimmon tree. I keep the dropped fruit picked up regularly. I think the squirrels are the ones eating the fruit from time to time. I don't find many ripped off the tree and no tree damage either. The fruit that have bite marks are left on the tree.
Thanks for any suggestions.
DEAR RON: The raccoons have established a latrine in your mom's backyard, and it's not easy to convince them to move on. Raccoons live in a small area, about four blocks in radius, so you have to be consistently hard nosed to get them to move on.
To help with the odor, you may want to dig in some fresh mulch and compost. Be sure to wear protective clothing including a face mask. Cover the spot with some nice smelling wood chips. Then, every evening, sprinkle Critter Ridder, chili powder or some other deterrent around the edges.
You also can try installing some motion-sensor lights that will pop on when the raccoons come calling. After a few nights of that, put a radio in the area and leave it tuned to an all-night talk radio station.
Another option is to spread bird netting on the ground. Raccoons don't like walking on it.
The key is to keep at it until you're sure they are gone.
Take a good look around your property to see if you are doing anything to attract the raccoons. Do you have pet food left outside at night? Are they drinking from birdbaths or water bowls? Be sure to bring these in or empty them at night when the raccoons are on the prowl.
As for your partially eaten fruit, I'd bet good money that it's roof rats rather than squirrels that are munching on them. Squirrels are active during the day, so you would likely see them. They also tend to pull the fruit off and take it back to their nests. Rats feed at night and treat our gardens like buffets, nibbling here and there.
Tickets still are available for the Valley Humane Society's Valentine crab feed, benefiting the "Just Like New" program, which provides assistance for the urgent medical needs of animals in the Tri-Valley area.
The crab dinner and silent auction is set for 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. Feb. 9 at the Shannon Center, 11600 Shannon Ave., Dublin. Tickets are $50 a person and are available online at http://valleyhumane.org, or by mail. (Please send checks to Just Like New -- VHS, P.O. Box 3436, San Ramon, CA 94583.)
Contact Joan Morris at email@example.com; or at P.O. Box 8099, Walnut Creek, CA 94596.