What you didn’t know about squirrels

The word itself. Squirrels. Such a weird word, don’t you think?

Anyhow, not getting to what I wanted to say. Let me tell you a little something about squirrels (see how weird?). They are to Massachusetts what doves or rats are to any bigger European city. Or deers to Nara in Japan (only other type of animal that practically invades a place that I could come up with. Do you know another example?).

Let me introduce you to the two common types of squirrels in Massachusetts. There’s a red type (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus), which is red or reddish brown on the back and white or gray-white on the belly. And there’s a gray type (Sciurus carolinensis) that is typically gray, with white on the chin, throat, and belly.

Around Cambridge, where we live and Boston the most common type of squirrel you’ll find is the gray one.

Where did all those squirrels come from? What’s their story?

Professor Etienne Benson (University of Pennsylvania) has published an article in the Journal of American History about just those questions. And wow, let me tell you, it’s quite a fascinating story. I’ll keep it short, but if you’re interested in reading the whole thing, here you go.

The Beginning of the Squirrel Story

The first introductions of free-living squirrels to cities  took place along the East Coast between the 1840s and the 1860s. Philadelphia was the pioneering city, with Boston and New Haven following.

The Squirrel Trend Phenomenon

You might ask yourself why were they introduced to the cities in the first place? Professor Benson says that the big squirrel trend started in the 1870s, where there was a movement  to fill the parks with squirrels that “was related to the idea that you want to have things of beauty in the city, but it was also part of a much broader ideology that says that nature in the city is essential to maintaining people’s health and sanity, and to providing leisure opportunities for workers who cannot travel outside the city.” These squirrels were basically the only wildlife people working in the city would ever be able to see.

Squirrel populations all over the country were growing. Feeding the squirrels became a common hobby during these years  and was even seen by naturalists and conservationists as a way to help humans learn how to better treat animals.

The Squirrel Conclusion

So. Should you ever run into a squirrel (wherever, whenever) again, send me a picture, because a) they’re supercute, let’s be real and b) because they are an interesting American historic relict of the 1870s, when they were put in parks for people’s entertainment.

You might want to see some real squirrels, after all the talking:

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