Plight of the Grey Squirrel

by Brian Hoskins


What the world needs is more squirrels. That’s my sentiment anyway. From the first time I ever set eyes on one in my youth, those graceful-bounding, nut-eating, tree-branch-to-tree-branch leaping, furry little animals have fascinated me. I have always admired their smarts, their craftiness, their fearlessness in leaping from tree to tree, sometimes hundreds of feet above the ground. One of my favorite childhood pastimes was watching squirrels chase each other around our two-acre country property in central Illinois. And when we’d visit my grandparents in Tennessee, I knew I’d witness an exciting acrobatic performance on my grandparents’ large, oak wooded property.

I loved watching those little rascals during my childhood, and I still love watching them today. When my family moved from our rural home to a suburb of Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 1987, however, I feared I wouldn’t come across many more squirrels because our yard was smaller and our neighborhood didn’t have many large trees. My fears quickly vanished when I noticed almost as many squirrels as people running around the streets of my new city home. I was glad to see squirrels were city dwellers as well, not minding the cement and buildings that had replaced the grass and trees they once knew, the grass and trees that for centuries had provided them with food, shelter, and protection from predators.

At least they didn’t seem to mind the change. They seemed to adapt quite well to their new life of raiding plastic bird feeders, collecting scraps of food and garbage off the streets, eating out of trash cans, and nourishing themselves on the handouts they received anxiously from people walking by. What else could they ask for? They had found their place in the progress of human society.

But in recent years I’ve begun to change my thoughts about the experience of these tiny creatures I admire so much. Perhaps squirrels do mind that grass and trees have been replaced by asphalt and buildings. And perhaps their ability to adapt so well to this violent change is the only thing that has allowed squirrels to survive in this age of human expansion and exploitation.

***

Three hundred years ago, squirrels ruled what was once the vast wilderness of North America, but as settlers from Europe began to move west and expand from the original thirteen colonies, squirrels, like the Native Americans, soon found their homeland diminishing. In the years before the coming of European settlers, there existed a relative balance between human and animal need for land resources. For centuries, Native Americans had cycled the controlled burning of forests and grasslands to perpetuate an abundance of nutrient-rich plants, which in turn supported vast numbers of wildlife. As author William Cronon cites in his book Changes in the Land, Native American controlled burning not only helped to increase the amount of nutrients in the soil so that plants and grasses could grow thicker, but the after-fire conditions of selected burning created what ecologists call the “edge effect” [1]. By burning certain areas repeatedly, Native Americans created extensive sections of land that grew thick forests around the perimeter of large grasslands.

This edge effect created a perfect habitat for large numbers of wildlife species such as elk, deer, beaver, hare, turkey, quail, and of course, squirrels. In fact, because the edge effect also promoted the growth of oak trees — the squirrel’s tree of choice for breeding and nesting– Native Americans helped to keep the squirrel populations steady [2]. In effect, the Native Americans were not only providing the soil with fresh nutrients, thus benefiting the entire environment, but they were using the land to continually restock a smorgasbord of plant and animal life for them to consume. As the number of elk, deer, small birds, and rodents rose, so did the number of predatory animals like eagles, hawks, foxes, and wolves; when the number of small animals declined, so did the number of predators [3]. And in the middle of these balancing predatory cycles were the Native Americans. What they took one season was replenished the next year.

Unfortunately, the European settlers who observed this edge effect failed to recognize the interdependent relationship of the system. For them, the overabundance of resources they witnessed upon their arrival in America meant one thing: capital. William Cronon writes, “Fish, fur, and lumber were assigned high values because of their scarcities in Europe, but were more or less free goods in [America]” [4]. The European settlers, so impressed with the seemingly limitless supply of natural resources, completely disregarded the fact that Native Americans’ “edging” was a major reason for the surplus. As far as the Europeans were concerned, the natural resources were limitless, and following this logic — or lack thereof — colonial farmers used new land until the soil was exhausted of its nutrients, then moved on, leaving wide trails of dead pasture as they cut down further sections of forest. This new system continued, and by the year “1800, Indians could no longer live the same seasons of want and plenty that their ancestors had, for the simple reason that crucial aspects of those seasons had changed beyond recognition” [5].

But the Native American food supply and way of life weren’t the only things altered by European expansion. As the first states were settled, whole forests were cut for the founding of towns and the planting of large corn and wheat fields. Wild animals that had lived in these forests for centuries suddenly found their homes and food supplies being cut away. But they soon found a new and truly overabundant source of food, and huge numbers invaded these corn and wheat fields during the middle 1700s. Squirrels, for one, became notorious for stealing food from the European settlers’ fields. Yet this only occurred after these same settlers stole the trees which had provided the squirrels with food for centuries. This seems an even trade, but like most “even trade” treaties of that day, the European settlers didn’t see it that way. In the minds of the settlers, there was no longer room for squirrels in the expansion of Western Civilization. Squirrels became a pest that needed to be exterminated.

Starting in 1749, a bounty of three dollars was put on the head of every single gray squirrel in Pennsylvania. As a result, nearly 650,000 squirrels were executed in that year alone [6]. The law was so effective that “after one year, the law was repealed because the treasury had paid out more than 8,000 pounds sterling and the state was nearly bankrupt” [7]. The killing was far from over, however. As Gerald Carson reports in his book Men, Beasts, and Gods: A History of Kindness and Cruelty to Animals, during the second half of the eighteenth century, “whole countryside[s] would join in the cooperative hunt known as a –squirrel frolic–, the winner determined by the tail count. The Kentucky Gazette for May 17, 1796, printed the total number of squirrels killed in one day’s fun: 7,941” [8]. In Michigan, hunting parties with a dozen guns frequently topped twenty thousand kills in a week’s time [9].

The slaughter of these native inhabitants of North America continued through the 1800s. World renowned naturalist Ernest Thompson Seton reported that “On Christmas Eve, 1807, the newborn state of Ohio declared war…by passing an act providing that county taxes in the State might be paid in Squirrel scalps” [10]. According to this new law, every free white male was required to bring in one hundred squirrel scalps per year or pay a fine [11]. Soon after, similar laws were passed in Kentucky and Missouri. In August of 1874, Franklin County, Ohio organized a squirrel hunt in which 19,660 squirrel tails were collected in just three days [12]. Unfortunately, these staggering numbers weren’t enough for some settlers; in the states of Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Tennessee the goal was complete eradication of the species [13].

These situations were not unlike the experiences of the Native Americans during the same period. As the squirrels were being “pushed out of the way,” so too were Native Americans being driven off their own land and onto smaller and smaller reservations, all in the name of the Europeans’ supposed divinely ordained Manifest Destiny. In the case of the Native American tribes, however, the goal of the Europeans was not extermination (as in the case of the squirrels), but assimilation into the “new” Western culture. But for the many Native Americans who refused to abandon their centuries old way of life, the United States government used a policy of relocating the tribes west of the Mississippi River, a plan the government called “an alternative to extinction” [14].

As the European greed for land continued, relocation treaties signed between individual Native American tribes and the United States government pushed the Native Americans further west, making room for more Western Civilization. These forced migrations of the Native Americans possessed an eerie similarity to the movement of large colonies of gray squirrels at the same time. As European civilization pushed further west, immense numbers of squirrels, finding their homeland decimated and their natural food sources cut down, scurried west in vast migrations. Some migrating colonies of gray squirrels in the 1800s were reported to have spanned hundreds of miles and consisted of over 100,000 squirrels. Thus, anything or anyone who seemed to be in the way of European American progress was forced to either assimilate into a new way of life or be methodically pushed out of the way.

***

Today, squirrels are surviving, though similar to the Native American people, their numbers are drastically declined from where they once were. Naturalist Ernest Thomas Seton made the solemn prediction in 1929 that “wholesale slaughter…combined with the reckless destruction of the nut-bearing forests, could have but one result” [15]. Seton estimated that at the end of the fifteenth century, when the first Europeans set foot on the North American continent, there could have been one billion squirrels or more in the vast wilderness of America [16].

The dwindling numbers of squirrels that remain today have been assimilated. Like the Native people of this once wild and free country, they have had to adjust to a lifestyle they most likely would not have chosen to live had the European settlers never set foot on this continent. Today, instead of living in large communities and in expansive forests, they have been driven onto their own reservations — the few trees in a city park, the isolated trees that remain in the yards of developed neighborhoods, the clusters of trees that remain on the outskirts of huge farmlands, or the sectioned tracts of land the United States government has designated as wilderness areas and National Parks.

Due to the isolation from their traditional, natural habitat, their own way of life has been virtually destroyed. Although many squirrels have been lucky enough to avoid human interference by living in the sectioned-off National Parks, many have succumbed to a new, diminished way of life, dependent on modern civilization instead of their traditional interdependency with their natural surroundings. While they used to rely on the land for their livelihood, eating an assortment of hickory nuts, acorns, walnuts, and bird eggs, many now depend on humanity to keep them alive, living anywhere humans flourish, eating scraps and garbage, wallowing in the waste humans litter the once fertile ground with — becoming fat, dependent, unhealthy, civilized.

Today, in a somewhat more environmentally aware society, squirrels have been recognized as a help to forest conservation because of their curious habit of burying nuts and not remembering where they hid them. There is documented proof that squirrels are largely responsible for the succession of hickory tree forests [17]. Further, author Leonard Lee Rue, who neither defends nor condemns squirrels in his writing, admits that “It would be safe to say…that almost every hickory, butternut, walnut and oak tree growing is the product of some squirrel’s activity years ago” [18].

Yet despite the proof that squirrels are an asset to forest conservation, they are still largely seen today as a nuisance. Authors such as Esmond Harris contend that gray squirrels are a threat to forest conservation, especially the conservation of broadleaved trees [19]. In his book, Wildlife Conservation in Managed Woodlands and Forests, Harris cites examples of gray squirrels being seen stripping the bark from sycamore, maples, beech, oak, and other such trees. Harris states that “late spring damage by bark stripping is more severe where populations are high (often because of winter feeding of game and livestock) and where the habitat has a limited supply of foods to fill the ‘hungry gap’ ” [20]. Harris concludes that “conservation [of the gray squirrel population] cannot be justified as the gray squirrel is much the most serious pest of broadleaved trees” and that “poisoning is the most effective means of control available at present” [21].

Thus, it appears that to most people gray squirrels are nothing but a nuisance that should be exterminated. Yet, take another look at Harris’s statements. Harris admits that severe stripping occurs where populations of squirrels are at elevated levels because of “winter feeding of game and livestock” or where the squirrels have “a limited supply of foods.” Viewing these ideas in a historical context, the meaning behind these statements should be different than what it appears to be.

Is not half the problem cause by humanity itself? What have humans done in the past two hundred and fifty years to squirrels but cut down their forest homes to create fields for livestock? Therefore, humans are destroying the squirrels’ natural habitat and forcing them to look other places for food. Harris, who defends the killing of squirrels, admits himself that stripping is worst where the squirrel habitats have been destroyed. The more trees humans cut down, the less habitat squirrels have, the more squirrels must look other places for food, the more humans want to exterminate the so-called squirrel “pests”. This has become a vicious cycle that humans are just as, if not more, responsible for as the squirrels they want to rid themselves of. Perhaps naturalist Ernest Thompson Seton described the squirrel/human relationship best when he wrote

The greatest enemy of the Gray-Squirrel is undoubtedly the white man,

armed — not with the rifle, but with an axe. While the great basin of the

Mississippi Valley was crowded with nut trees that never failed of a

bounteous annual supply, the Squirrel could scoff at the rifleman, be they

never such dead-shots.

But when the forest itself was laid low, and the possibility of new

generations cut off, the Squirrel hordes were like a river whose parent

springs were dried up at the source [22].

Still, squirrels are left more or less to fend for themselves. Viewed by most bird watching lovers as useless, bothersome rodents, squirrels risk being shot any time they attempt to scrounge for food anywhere within the relative vicinity of a bird feeder hanging in someone’s backyard tree. In most instances, the gray squirrel is free game to any person with a gun –or construction equipment. As recently as early 2003, the Bush administration rejected a petition to allow the western gray squirrel to be protected under the Endangered Species Act. As a result of this rejection, plans for a multi-lane highway through Washington state’s largest remaining oak and prairie woodland — prime breeding grounds for the endangered squirrel population — is in the works. This highway project will all but eradicate the few remaining individuals in this once thriving squirrel population. A study conducted from 1992 to 1999 found that the population dropped from one hundred breeding pairs to just six in those seven years [23].

Watching squirrels these days means something different to me than when I was a child. Yes, watching these admirable little animals work and play in the few trees in my neighborhood still brings a smile to my face, but it’s a smile tinged with sorrow. Sorrow in the knowledge of what they have lost. Sorrow for what we have all lost. Little clusters of trees, Native American tribal lands, and cities: as we’ve progressed, we’ve all been assigned to reservations of one kind or another. It’s the sour irony of expansion.
Copyright-2003 by Brian Hoskins. All rights reserved.


Notes

  1. William Cronon, Changes in the Land (New York: Hill and Wang,1983), 50-51.
  2. Cronon, 51.
  3. Cronon, 51.
  4. Cronon, 168.
  5. Cronon, 169.
  6. E.W. Nelson, Wild Animals of North America (Washington D.C.: National Geographic Society, 1930), 138.
  7. Leonard Lee Rue, Sportsman’s Guide to Game Animals (New York: Outdoor Life Books, 1968), 278.
  8. Gerald Carson, Men, Beasts, and Gods: A History of Cruelty and Kindness to Animals (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1972), 66.
  9. Ernest Thomas Seton, Lives of Game Animals (New York: Doubleday, Doran and Company, Inc., 1929), 24.
  10. Seton, 21.
  11. Nelson, 138.
  12. Seton, 21.
  13. Carson, 66.
  14. Bernard W. Sheehan, Seeds of Extinction: Jeffersonian Philanthropy and the American Indian (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1973), 245.
  15. Seton, 24.
  16. Seton, 24.
  17. William Henry Burt, Mammals of the Great Lakes Region (Ann Arbor:University of Michigan Press, 1972), 102.
  18. Rue, 269.
  19. Esmond Harris, Wildlife Conservation in Managed Woodlands and Forests (Cambridge: Basil Blackwell, 1991), 204.
  20. Harris, 204.
  21. Harris, 205.
  22. Seton, 51.
  23. John Dodge, “Western gray squirrel protection rejected,” The Olympian, 12 June 2003, <http://www.theolympian.com/home/news/20030612/ southsound/26485.
  24. shtml> (18 June 2003).