And Then I Saw A Sea of Squirrels……
Its fall and my patio and lawns are full of nature’s bounty, aka nuts. Lots and lots of nuts and therefore lots and lots of squirrels (and deer but that’s for another story from this park naturalist). This year is a high cycle year so all the oaks, hickories, and beech trees in my backyard were groaning under the weight of the nuts they bore. And have now loosed them upon every surface available, turning every spare inch into a prickly hulled, brown blanket or a mosaic of shiny hard bits and pieces of acorns to go along with the prickly hulls of the beech nut. Of course the green golf balls of the black walnut are dropping too, sounding like hail during the worst of storms.
And my dogs hate this.
I don’t blame them. Those prickly little bits and pieces hurt the pads of their paws, jagged hulls of shells courtesy of sharp squirrel teeth are just the right size to work themselves between the pads and wedging themselves firmly to great pain and discomfort. No amount of sweeping is stopping the tide. It’s relentless, a constant cacophony of sound followed by a carpet of discarded husks.
I think most people don’t realize that nuts are cyclical. That each year the harvest is that much greater than the year before with the various animal populations that depend upon them for food expanding along with them. And then the year that follows the one with the biggest yield is all but barren. No nuts, or at least very little. People start reporting seeing skinny or starving animals. And they reason that such a thing helps to keep populations down. And certainly that is true for the present day. But not always.
Did you know people once saw seas of squirrels as they migrated through?
Yes, Eastern gray squirrels used to migrate, following the cycles of the oaks, and hickories and other nut bearing trees. Back when the midwestern and eastern forests were one contiguous mass of forest. Back before we started to carve out our settlements, and farms and cities. Back when there were only small farmsteads and villages that dotted the forests, tiny punctuation marks of humanity.
Then the animals lived much different lives than they do today.
One of my college professors, Dr. Vagn Flyger wrote a report for the University of Maryland on a squirrel migration as recent as 1968. Oh, how he loved squirrels and imparted that love to his students! And this recent migration, from Vermont to Georgia, fascinated him. You can read it here. But even more fascinating are the earlier account of waves of squirrels so massive that it took days before the end of the hoard could be seen. Or as Robert Kennicott in his article “The Quadrupeds of Illinois” in The Annual Report of the Commissioner of Patents for 1846 stated “it took a month for the mess of squirrels to pass through the area.”*
Just imagine what that must have looked like! Tens of thousands, perhaps millions of squirrels following the wild harvest through the vast forest of the midwest and east, flowing like a grey furred river, leaping and bounding over every surface as they passed their way through the immediate area. Here is another quote (from that *same article ):
*In 1811, Charles Joseph Labrobe wrote in The Rambler in North America of a vast squirrel migration that autumn in Ohio: “A countless multitude of squirrels, obeying some great and universal impulse, which none can know but the Spirit that gave them being, left their reckless and gambolling life, and their ancient places of retreat in the north, and were seen pressing forward by tens of thousands in a deep and sober phalanx to the South …”
We still have them migrate occasionally. The last reported one was likely 1998 in Arkansas but nothing like the vast migrations of the past. And how can they with no massive forest or massive stands of trees, following the bounty of nuts and seeds as the cycles demanded? Like the beaver before them, we have changed their natural history and lost something special in return.
Now the Eastern gray squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) is regarded as a cute backyard dweller or bird seed eating pest. They get into attics or gnaw on wires. We are amused by them, infuriated by them, and in some cases regarding bird feeders outsmarted by them. They throw nuts at my dogs and tease them unmercifully and I laugh, of course. They are a constant in my yard and a source of food for my owls and hawks. They are as familiar to me as my wrens and woodpeckers…and my life would be poorer without them.
But once they moved across the land in rivers of energy and gray fur, millions of them covering the landscape and making people stop in their tracks, marveling to see such a sight. Just once I wish I could have been there, standing beside those folks so I too could have said “and then I saw a sea of squirrels…”.
The Migration of the Grey Squirrels
by William Howitt
When in my youth I traveled
Throughout each north country,
Many a strange thing did I hear,
And many a strange thing to see.
But nothing was there pleased me more
Than when, in autumn brown,
I came, in the depths of the pathless woods,
To the grey squirrels’ town.
There were hundreds that in the hollow boles
Of the old, old trees did dwell,
And laid up store, hard by their door,
Of the sweet mast as it fell.
But soon the hungry wild swine came,
And with thievish snouts dug up
Their buried treasure, and left them not
So much as an acorn cup.
Then did they chatter in angry mood,
And one and all decree,
Into the forests of rich stone-pine
Over hill and dale to flee.
Over hill and dale, over hill and dale,
For many a league they went,
Like a troop of undaunted travelers
Governed by one consent.
But the hawk and the eagle, and peering owl,
Did dreadfully pursue;
When lo! to cut off their pilgrimage,
A broad stream lay in view.
But then did each wondrous creature show
His cunning and bravery;
With a piece of the pine-bark in his mouth,
Unto the stream came he;
And boldly his little bark he launched,
Without the least delay;
His busy tail was his upright sail,
And he merrily steered away.
Never was there a lovelier sight
Than that grey squirrels’ fleet;
And with anxious eyes I watched to see
What fortune it would meet.
Soon had they reached the rough mild-stream,
And ever and anon
I grieved to behold some bark wrecked,
And its little steersman gone.
But the main fleet stoutly held across;
I saw them leap to shore;
They entered the woods with a cry of joy,
For their perilous march was o’er.
Now for the Week Ahead in Reviews (and Autumn Sedum in my garden):
Monday, Sept. 30: Sonata by A.F. Henley
Tuesday, Oct. 1: September Summary of Reviews
Wed., October 2: Goblins by Melanie Tushmore
Thurs., October 3: Dominant Predator by S.A. McAuley
Friday, October 4: The Isle of Wishes by Sue Brown
Sat., October 5: Knightmare (City Knight #2) by T.A. Webb