Urban Squirrels: Pets, Pests, Moral Compass or…something more?

I just read the amazing article on the history of the urbanization of the Eastern Gray Squirrel by Dr. Etienne Benson! I highly recommend that you read it yourself if you can, but as soon as this one hit the social media circuit, I knew a blog post was in order.

"...and so it shall be...humans will provide me food and shelter..."
"...and so it shall be...humans will provide me food and shelter..."

While the phrase “in a nutshell” may be overused when summarizing research and stories about squirrels, I’ll give you a brief overview. Once upon a time, there were no urban squirrels! Until the mid-1800’s, squirrels were nowhere to be found in urban parks, and the only squirrels you would see in the cities were pets.


"Please, sir, can I have some more?"
"Please, sir, can I have some more?"

The motivation for planned introductions of squirrels into city parks was multi-fold: partly to bring more nature to the city folk, and partly to make public spaces more attractive (note that introduced peacocks and deer were also part of this plan). Part of the squirrels’ charm was that they became, to many, public pets. They belonged to everyone and no one, and their bold, semi-tame behavior was pleasing to those who deigned to feed them. Furthermore, their cuteness and “begging” behavior made it easy not only to anthropomorphize their behavior, but also to elicit feelings of charitableness in the feeder.

But not everyone was enchanted with the city squirrels. In cities like Boston, squirrels primarily relied on human-provided food for survival, and the lack of nut-bearing trees may have led them to eat birds and their eggs, which led to a squirrel-vs-songbird battle. Later on, parks were designed with better landscapes for squirrel survival, and squirrels in turn adapted to the urban lifestyle – by navigating telephone cables and venturing into the suburbs where there were more trees and people willing to offer a helping hand. This also spread the damage they did, when they nested in attics and chewed their way through many a tree or wall. In some places, the population exploded to the point that culls were ordered to reduce their numbers.

beggin2Squirrels even became a metaphor for human moral decay. That begging behavior that some found irresistible? To others, it represented the downfall of human society, reflecting the contempt that many held toward the poor who also begged in the city streets. Simultaneously, the treatment of squirrels was viewed as a measure of one’s humanity and civility – and urban squirrels were proposed as a cure for cruelty – that they could help teach compassion toward others (much like the humane education programs of today?). Those who were cruel to squirrels or ate them (including cats) posed a threat to community trust.

Ultimately, squirrels have done very well for themselves in cities, demonstrating their intelligence and adaptability to varying environments (as well as the ability to wrangle humans into giving them food). But squirrels have a lot to offer us as well.

This long and tangled history with urban squirrels demonstrates what I feel is a human need to interact with wildlife. For some of us, this is a reminder of our similarities to other creatures – we too are animals. For others, urban wildlife may highlight our differences from other animals. Regardless, I think we have a deep, undernourished longing to experience nature, and for those of us living in cities, squirrels, pigeons and our pets may give us an outlet for that need.

Urban animals also allow us to study animal behavior, either formally or informally. For example, while city squirrels may be different from their rural counterparts in some ways, they are still subject to fluctuations in environmental food sources, predation, and perhaps new dangers that country squirrels don’t face, such as traffic and poisons. But what they do best, they do just like all other squirrels – they store food, making decisions about where and how much time to spend to bury each nut. Right under our noses, squirrels, crows, pigeons and hawks are doing really cool stuff – navigating, foraging and solving problems. And while this amazing article highlighted our history with urban squirrels, I think that understanding what makes urban animals tick and how they think is the FUTURE of our relations with them.

More reading and listening:

Etienne Benson’s article “The Urbanization of the Eastern Gray Squirrel in the United States

Podcast interview with Etienne Benson

Project Squirrel – Citizen Science!!! (now with an Android app!)

North American Tree Squirrels – fantastic book by Michael A. Steele and John L. Koprowski

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