Some Squirrelly Moments in American History

Mmmmmm. Tomato leaves. Photo by Gerald D. Swick

Late this summer I noticed a gray squirrel on my deck pulling leaves off my potted tomato plant. The little thief would grab a couple pawfuls of leaves, munch on them, then grab some more and chow down on those. Squirrelkind had already denuded the plant of its fruit while the tomatoes were still green. If they were making fried green tomatoes they could have at least brought some to share with me.

Years ago in the Zilker Botanical Garden of Austin, Texas, I watched a squirrel repeatedly leap from the ground until it pulled a rosebud off a bush, run off a short distance, eat the bud, then return for more. But Sciurus carolinesis chowing down on tomato leaves was a new one on me.

The tomato plant is now a forlorn husk, but the gray bandit just discovered the leaves on a potted daisy. Great. Fifty billion squirrels in the world, and I have to have the one in my yard that’s watching its figure and eating only salads.

Overrun by squirrels

Strange behavior on the part of these treetop acrobats has confounded people at various times in America’s history. A Virginian named Thomas Green kept a diary while traveling through his state, Kentucky and Tennessee between July 29, 1826, and March 31, 1827; the diary is in the holdings of the Virginia Historical Society. During his rambles he was told that in Madison County, Ohio, just west of Columbus, in 1822 squirrels swarmed out of the woods and overran farms like graduate students at a free buffet. According to what Green was told, two young boys and a dog killed 700 of the ravenous critters in just one day. One ponders if the boys’ family or families ate fried squirrel, squirrel loaf and squirrel souffle for weeks.

Nut trees there had failed to produce a harvest that autumn. Hungry squirrels swept through cornfields, sometimes stripping every ear from the stalks. Some of the bushy-tails came right up to the threshold of houses, probably demanding someone invent bird feeders so they could raid them. A few probably stood by roadsides, holding signs that said, “Veteran of the War of 1812. Please help.”

That winter devastated the squirrel population; they didn’t become plentiful again for four years.

Squirrels swim the Mississippi River

Exactly 50 years later, travelers on the Mississippi reported a similar phenomenon. The Memphis Advance, in a story reprinted in The Intelligencer of Wheeling, West Virginia, on October 1, 1872, reported, “great numbers of squirrels have been noticed emigrating from Arkansas to Tennessee” for six to eight weeks. This was taking place in the 25-mile stretch between islands No. 25 and No. 26. The river was about three-fourths of a mile wide there, according to the Advance.

A report from the crew of the steamer Celeste said that while taking on wood at Brown’s Landing, they saw many squirrels reach the bank from the opposite side, “so much exhausted that they were barely able to creep up under the wood bank, where they were easily captured.”

The Advance questioned whether this exodus was due to sparse mast (nuts on the forest floor, Merriam-Webster says) in Arkansas that was driving the little critters to swim to Tennessee in search of better nut groves, or if it was “merely a freak of fancy on the part of the squirrel tribe.”

I have another theory, based on the plant-stripping fiend out on my deck. Island No. 25 was about five miles from Tomato, Arkansas. Maybe the squirrels had stripped all the tomato plants of their leaves and were looking for more in Tennessee.

Roadkill squirrels

These mysterious migrations were not confined to the 19th century. In the fall of 1968, the number of road-kill squirrels along the highways between Florida and Vermont jumped from an average of one per mile to ten per mile, prompting consternation among biologists, according to “The Great Squirrel Migration,” Terrapin Tales from the University of Maryland Archives. Luckily, the U of M had a squirrel expert on its faculty, Dr. Vagn Flyger. He peeled bodies from roadsides and compared them to other specimens he had collected.

He determined an abundant acorn crop the previous year resulted in “low winter mortality and increased reproductive success during 1968.” The explosion in the squirrel population caused the nut-munchers to expand their territories, seeking new places to store their food. Unfamiliar with the geography of the new areas, they “unknowingly ran to their doom in busy roads and bodies of water.”

So if you ever come across large numbers of squirrels hitchhiking, be kind: take them to Waffle House for pecan waffles.

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