The Squirrels in Our Parks Are A Rewilding Success Story
Posted by Richard Conniff on December 10, 2013
There’s hardly any more common wildlife in cities east of the Mississippi River than the gray squirrel, racing like greased smoke through the tree branches, or foraging, fat and wily, beneath every bird feeder. Watching them can at times induce laugh-out-loud delight—or push us to the brink of madness. (For laughter and madness both, check out any number of videos of failed “squirrel-proof” bird feeders.) On balance, I think most people would agree that city life without squirrels would be a far duller thing.
Until relatively recently, though, a life without squirrels was normal in most American cities. The spectacle of a squirrel in the city was so unusual for much of the 19th century, according to an article just published in the Journal of American History, that when a pet squirrel got loose near New York’s city hall in 1856, hundreds of people gathered to watch—and ridicule—the hapless attempts to recapture it. Squirrels were known not as city dwellers but as shy inhabitants of thick forests and as occasional agricultural pests.
Etienne Benson’s account of how that changed comes at a useful time. Today’s nascent urban wildlife movement is trying to figure out how to bring more birds, butterflies, and other species into the city—and beyond that, how to keep any wildlife alive in an increasingly urbanized world. So how did the squirrel become part of our daily lives even as other species, such as the passenger pigeon and the ivory-billed woodpecker, were being driven to extinction?
“In order to end up with squirrels in the middle of cities,” writes Benson, a University of Pennsylvania historian, “you had to transform the urban landscape by planting trees and building parks and changing the way that people behave. People had to stop shooting squirrels and start feeding them.”
Early settlers had exterminated the gray squirrels, sometimes encouraged by bounties. But a few wildlife lovers reintroduced them, first in Philadelphia’s Franklin Square in 1847 and then later in Boston and New Haven, Conn. Supporters provided nest boxes and food, with the idea that wildlife in the city would turn public squares into “truly delightful resorts” and bring pleasure “to the increasing multitudes.”
That effort petered out. But in the decades after the Civil War, the landscape designer Frederick Law Olmsted pioneered the urban park movement. He designed landscape-scale parks that threaded through cities, along parkways and waterways, and out into rural areas. (Among his creations: Central Park in Manhattan, Prospect Parks in Brooklyn and Newark, N.J., and a ring of parks around Milwaukee, Wis.)
That movement was about the importance of having things of beauty in the heart of the city, says Benson. “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.”
Deliberate reintroductions of squirrels and the chance for different populations to connect on these new greenways helped the squirrels hang on this time. Squirrels soon adapted to the new habitat, learning to nest in attics when possible (inducing more home-owner madness) and to use telephone and electric wires as highways safe from city cats.
For squirrel advocates, the idea wasn’t just to benefit the animals but also to change people’s attitudes toward wildlife. The popular nature writer Ernest Thompson Seton urged the introduction of “missionary squirrels” in cities around the nation to cure boys of their cruel tendency to abuse animals. “Everyone who feeds squirrels will become their friend, and this means that before many months the young community will have been turned into squirrel protectors,” wrote Seton.
The 19th-century squirrel movement had its drawbacks. The same urge to enliven city habitats caused some supporters to introduce gray squirrels in British parks, where they drove out the native red squirrels. (The “American tree rat” is still the source of considerable anti-American resentment there.) In this country, the paternalistic program of feeding squirrels, for our own amusement more than for their benefit, sometimes turned them into beggars and pests. In some cities, protecting squirrels also became an occasion for ethnic prejudice, with hunting for the dinner pot by Italian immigrants singled out as a particular threat to squirrels.
As it happens, my own great-grandfather, Bartolomeo Badaracco, was a hunter in the northern Bronx when a prominent wildlife advocate there was denouncing the threat from “stray dogs, cats, poachers, and other vermin.” The squirrel proponents were among the most powerful men in the country, and they didn’t stop at categorizing Italians as vermin. They also planned the route of the new Bronx River Parkway with the deliberate intent of displacing Italian communities. Bart Badaracco lost his house on the river as a result.
For me, one useful lesson from the squirrel story is the need to not lapse into the same hateful thinking when talking about people who still hunt bushmeat or graze livestock in national parks abroad. (Hateful thinking doesn’t change anything, by the way. My great-grandfather simply built a new house across the street—and kept hunting.) The larger lesson, though, is that wildlife restorations can work, even in crowded cities with seemingly intractable environmental problems.
People reacted to the appearance of squirrels in the city, says Benson, with the same giddy excitement and delight that marked the recent reappearance of peregrine falcons and red-tailed hawks amid Manhattan’s skyscrapers. (One red-tail now lives on a window ledge above Fifth Avenue. Pale Male is a New York hero, and if hawks can make it there, well, you know the song.) Moreover, we can repeat that experience with a thousand—even ten thousand—other species.
If the idea of re-wilding the city seems like too big a challenge, or the daily work to get there becomes too discouraging, just glance out the window at the squirrels skittering round your own backyard. That’s the kind of difference a few determined people can make.