Friday, June 21, 2024

A squirrel runs along a fence in North Cambridge in October. (Photo: Richard George)

I’ve written about eastern gray squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis) before, but there is so much more to say about them. Recently Jef C Taylor posted on his Urban Pantheist blog an article about the urbanization of squirrels. Did you know that before the first half of the 1800s, there were no squirrels in U.S. cities (even though gray squirrels are native to eastern North America)?

According to the article, between the 1840s and the 1860s, cities started introducing squirrels to city parks. Philadelphia went first, followed by Boston and New Haven, Connecticut. The cities built nest boxes for the squirrels and gave them food. Of course, visitors to the parks fed the critters, too. In 1857 a visitor to Philadelphia noted that the city’s squirrels were “so tame that they will come and take nuts out of one’s hand.”

An urban squirrel finds a stashed acorn in a Somerville park. (Photo: Jeanine Farley)

In 1855, Boston’s mayor, Jerome V.C. Smith, introduced a handful of Vermont gray squirrels to the 50 acres of Boston Common. The idea was to create a peaceful oasis in a bustling city. The Common in those days was mostly an open field bordered on one side by the Charles River tidal flats and on the other sides by commercial and residential buildings. This was before urban trees had become part of city streetscapes. The squirrels did not leave the Common, because there was nowhere for them to go. The English elms on the Common could have provided seeds for the squirrels to eat in the spring, but there was little for them to eat the rest of the year, so the city fed them. Despite this, by 1871, the squirrels on Boston Common had died out. It is not clear what led to their demise, but it might have been neglect, dogs or the use of the Common as a mustering ground during the Civil War.

A Cambridge squirrel feasts on an apple. (Photo: Ann Schlesinger)

In Cambridge, the ornithologist William Brewster observed gray squirrel populations from the 1890s to the 1910s. According to Brewster, it took about 10 years for gray squirrels to migrate the mile from Mount Auburn Cemetery to Harvard Square. As farmland gave way to suburban homes, squirrels went from being pests that were shot on sight to welcome visitors. By 1900, gray squirrel populations were increasing in all of Boston’s suburbs. People had not introduced these new populations of squirrels; they had arrived of their own volition from surrounding wooded areas. But people did encourage them, especially in Harvard Yard.

Squirrels have adapted to city habitats where human food waste is plentiful. (Photo: Jeanine Farley)

In 1903, The Cambridge Tribune described the gray squirrels in Harvard Yard:

There are probably in the neighborhood of 100 squirrels in Harvard yard, and they are to be found in lesser numbers in many parts of Cambridge. In the winter the squirrels have a habit of climbing up to the dormitory windows on the vines that grow up the walls and thus they demand to be fed on the windowsills by the students … Taking a walk through Harvard yard any fair day, the stranger need not be surprised in the least to have one of these rodents run up his trousers and briskly go through his pockets, in search of nuts. 

A squirrel in East Arlington finds berries in January. (Photo: Richard George)

In the early 1900s, Harvard University built nest boxes for squirrels and distributed peanuts for them during the winter.

The Harvard authorities built houses for these squirrel pets, covering them neatly with bark and placing them in the tops of the majestic elms of the yard. They also have feed boxes lower down on the trees, within reach from the ground, so that they may keep them filled with nuts, and thus prevent the squirrels from coming to want.

Two squirrels embrace in March 2021. (Photo: Richard George)

According to the Cambridge Chronicle of May 17, 1902: 

For years the little animals have flitted about the old campus, but never before in such numbers, and with such tameness, as this season … The day watchman in the quadrangle, who has been constituted chief distributer of nuts, has been bitten three times lately, once severely … Some of the students have taken the young ones to raise, carrying them about in their pockets until more than half grown, and letting them run about the tables at Memorial and Randall halls at will during mealtime. 

5. A squirrel shreds a nut in the Growing Center near Union Square in Somerville. (Photo: Jeanine Farley)

It sounds as if the male Harvard students fed the squirrels so well that the critters became quite emboldened, but nonetheless, it’s women who were credited with overstuffing the squirrels “When, during the brief six weeks of summer school, Harvard puts by her ancient traditions and admits the young ladies on an equal footing with the men to enjoy the benefits of higher education, Mr. Squirrel gets a feeding that he ought to remember for a long time.”

The winter of 1902, like our winter so far, did not have much snow: “There was not enough snow the past winter to cause much mortality among the furry tribe by covering their food supplies. Not one dead squirrel was found in the yard … They cannot get a good foothold on snow, and so often fall a victim to cats.” 

A squirrel in North Cambridge in January. (Photo: Richard George)

Thanks to humans, gray squirrels now thrive in urban environments. Cities have planted nut-bearing trees such as oaks rather than the English elms that were once a favorite. In addition to nuts, squirrels have discovered dumpsters and other sources of human food waste. Today, of course, urban squirrels are so common that it is difficult to imagine a time that they did not share our city spaces with us.

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Jeanine Farley is an educational writer who has lived in the Boston area for more than 30 years. She enjoys taking photos of our urban wild things.