Where did city squirrels come from?

Estern gray squirrel
CC BY 2.0 Wikimedia Commons

Before the 19th century there was a distinct lack of squirrels in metropolitan areas; this is how they got there.

I love squirrels. Considered by many to be beggars, icky rodents, birdseed thieves, attic wreckers, dirty little scoundrels ... I am happy to have eastern gray squirrels (Sciurus carlinensis) scampering about my neck of the woods; as a city dweller I am grateful for whatever wildlife I can get. (And while I know eastern gray squirrels are a vexing invasive species in some areas, they are native here in the northeast where I live.) I’ve always thought that if the squirrel naysayers had never seen a squirrel before and came upon one in the woods, they’d be delighted by the pert ears and fluffy tails, the bunny stance, the charmingly neurotic alertness.

As it turns out, my take on squirrels is much like that of 19th century urban reformers. Before the 1800s, there were no squirrels in city parks. Hard to imagine, but true; now they seem to run the joints.

It was in the late 19th century that landscape parks really took root and cities began implementing wide expanses of green space. With an understanding that nature and fresh air were efficacious curatives for the maladies that ailed, “pleasure grounds” and urban parks became a place to enjoy the health-giving effects of nature.

And as parks became more prominent, squirrels became the focus of attention, as Etienne Benson of the University of Pennsylvania writes in the Journal of American History. Urban reformers, who thought of the squirrel as a rural mascot, wanted to bring the animal in to places like Manhattan’s Central Park in order to create “a bucolic atmosphere that was entertaining, enlightening, and salubrious.” In 1847 three squirrels were released in Philadelphia's Franklin Square and were provided with food and boxes for nesting. By the 1870s, the squirrel trend was in full swing.

And they didn’t stop at squirrels, Benson explains to Popular Science; they were just part of the woodland menagerie brought in to punctuate the parks. There were also starlings, sparrows, deer, chipmunks and even peacocks intentionally placed in the new green spaces during the middle of the 19th century. But the squirrels stood out. Not only because they’re a native North American species, but also because they’re diurnal mammals that aren’t utterly terrified of humans. As well, they assume a begging posture, says Benson, a trait that attracted those with, “soft hearts and extra breadcrumbs.”

They were “a novel and much-commented-upon feature of the American urban scene,” Benson writes, that “did change in some small way what it was like to be out in the parks or on the streets.”

We loved having them at first. “What was probably most surprising to me was in a way how surprised (and, often, delighted) urban Americans were to have them around,” Benson says. Many places, like Harvard University, went so far as to construct nest boxes and give out bags of nuts to sustain them in the winter. Feeding squirrels became a favored pastime; the feeders of Washington DC’s Lafayette Park handed out more than 75 pounds of peanuts weekly!

People loved the squirrels and showered them with nuts and good will. That, in addition to the favorable habitat of the parks and the squirrels’ capacity to reproduce with prolificacy, meant that they began to flourish. By 1902, it’s estimated that there were around 1,000 squirrels in Central Park alone.

Fast forward to now and the novelty has worn off. Squirrels have been lumped together with "dirty" pigeons and rats and generally get short shrift from their urban human co-habitants; and grey squirrels have become problematically invasive in some parts. But here where they are native; if we could wind back the clock and imagine experiencing these new swaths of landscaped greens where once just city stood … and within those parks to see new creatures that had seldom been seen before. To do this might allow for more appreciation for the creatures that surround us. As is, we shun the squirrels that once stood as rural icons and on we go with our busy lives, ignoring the few bits of nature that city life affords.

As Vernon Bailey, the retired chief field naturalist of the U.S. Bureau of Biological Survey, said in a 1934 radio address about animals around Washington D.C., gray squirrels are, “probably our best-known and most loved native wild animals, as they are not very wild and, being very intelligent, accept and appreciate our hospitality and friendship.”

Tags: Animals | Urban Life


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