The Government’s Surprising History of Squirrel Population Engineering

One man’s mission to stock the National Mall with “interesting little animals.”

National Journal
Brian Resnick
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Brian Resnick
Nov. 7, 2013, 10:32 a.m.

The Na­tion­al Mall needed squir­rels.

The year was 1899, and with the Civil War fad­ing with the memory of an older gen­er­a­tion, the state of Vir­gin­ia offered a great gift to the na­tion’s cap­it­al — a pair of squir­rels. But not just any squir­rels. These wood­land creatures were poised to be­come the Adam and Eve of all the squir­rels that now pop­u­late the Na­tion­al Mall.

At the turn of the 20th cen­tury, squir­rels were mys­ter­i­ously miss­ing from the cap­it­al city. And El­li­ot Woods, then head of the of­fice of the Ar­chi­tect of the Cap­it­ol, felt their ab­sence and sought to re­stock the mall. Some­time earli­er in 1899, he had penned a let­ter to the re­gister of the Land Of­fice of Vir­gin­ia, re­quest­ing a pair of the furry ro­dents.

“I hope to be able to con­fer a like footy … game early this fall. I would have to have a cage to ex­press this in,” W. Richard­son, a Vir­gin­ia bur­eau­crat, wrote back to Woods in Au­gust.

In 1901, news of the deal went pub­lic. “Sev­er­al Pairs of In­ter­est­ing Little An­im­als to Be Set Free Among the Trees,” read the sub­head of the scoop in The Wash­ing­ton Post. “It is [Wood’s] in­ten­tion to stock the grounds sur­round­ing the Cap­it­ol Build­ings with squir­rels, in or­der to in­crease the at­tract­ive­ness of the park. Sev­er­al pairs will be set at liberty with­in the next few weeks, and it is ex­pec­ted that the little fel­lows will soon make them­selves home in the big trees.”

Wood’s only fear was “that the small boys would an­noy the an­im­als, and per­haps kill them be­fore they have a chance to propag­ate.” Woods called on the pub­lic to aid in pro­tect­ing the an­im­als from the more vi­cious chil­dren. One can en­vi­sion El­li­ot Wood’s grave­stone in­scribed with the words: “Great Squir­rel Lib­er­at­or.” But that’s not the case.

“In a com­par­at­ively short time,” The Post con­tin­ued, “the an­im­als will mul­tiply and be­come a source of amuse­ment to the nu­mer­ous chil­dren who run and play on the grass un­der the trees.”

But how is it pos­sible that, at that time, squir­rels roamed Vir­gin­ia but not right across the Po­tom­ac, in Wash­ing­ton? A 2008 fea­ture in The Post claims the nat­ive squir­rel pop­u­la­tion had been wiped out due to hunt­ing. But I wanted to con­firm with an ex­pert.

John L. Ko­prowski is a pro­fess­or at the Uni­versity of Ari­zona. I found him via Wiki­pe­dia, where he is iden­ti­fied as a “lead­ing ex­pert on the eco­logy and con­ser­va­tion of squir­rels.” And my con­fid­ence in his ex­pert­ise was as­sured when I dis­covered that his email ad­dress in­cluded the word “squir­rel.”

“Pretty amaz­ing crit­ters,” he wrote to me from China. He thinks urb­an de­vel­op­ment was par­tially to blame for the si­lence of the squir­rels. “East­ern gray squir­rels prefer re­l­at­ively closed forest and don’t typ­ic­ally do well in very open forests, such as prair­ie edges or urb­an areas that have been cleared,” he wrote. “I would haz­ard a guess that the trees of the Cap­it­ol area were cleared and young (not pro­du­cing much seed); thus, it was a sub­op­tim­al hab­it­at.”

Dur­ing that time, he in­forms me, “great squir­rel mi­gra­tions were com­mon” as forests were cleared. But fond­ness for the little beast had not waned. “Such aug­ment­a­tions and trans­lo­ca­tions were in­cred­ibly com­mon dur­ing the 1800s and 1900s as many wanted to bring a bit of home with them.”

Whatever the reas­on for the great squir­rel dearth, it ap­pears Wood’s cam­paign worked. In 1903, the mall was teem­ing with squir­rels, so much so that con­cerns grew there would not be enough shel­ter for them in the cold winter months (nev­er mind the fact that squir­rels are hardy enough to shrug off the cold). A con­cerned Treas­ury De­part­ment em­ploy­ee wrote Woods: “It may not have oc­curred to you that my little friends the squir­rels in the Cap­it­ol grounds may pos­sibly be short of houses for the ap­proach­ing winter,” the let­ter reads. “They have in­creased con­sid­er­ably in num­ber, and may suf­fer if they are not provided for.”

Not every­one in the Dis­trict was happy with the change in fauna, however. “It is a fact that the squir­rels in the Cap­it­ol grounds, while some­what amus­ing, are nev­er­the­less a nuis­ance in sev­er­al re­spects,” a res­id­ent named H.B. Dodges wrote. Aside from the squir­rels’ habit of driv­ing birds away, “by rob­bing their nests,” the ro­dents had re­portedly been steal­ing nuts from the homeown­er’s wal­nut tree. “They are about the place nearly every day and on Thanks­giv­ing Day, one of them sat on my porch rail­ing and looked at me as I sat at my desk, as im­prudent as any­thing could be, as much as to say, how can you help your­self! I don’t want to kill or in­jure them, but I must protest my­self in some way.” Or, as we would say today, Dodges felt that the squir­rel was in­dic­at­ing the homeown­er should “come at me, bro.”

The gov­ern­ment, it turns out, has had a heavy hand in D.C. squir­rel pop­u­la­tion en­gin­eer­ing. The Cap­it­ol’s black squir­rels were brought here from Canada, ac­cord­ing to a 2011 art­icle in The Post. The U.S. sent some gray squir­rels to its north­ern neigh­bor in ex­change for the black squir­rels, which ar­rived at the Na­tion­al Zoo in 1902.

Squir­rel ex­changes, however, do not al­ways work out for the best, Ko­prowski ex­plains. “Wash­ing­ton, D.C.’s squir­rels are be­lieved to be one of the sources of Italy’s in­tro­duced east­ern gray squir­rels that are quite prob­lem­at­ic,” he said. Ac­cord­ing to Sci­entif­ic Amer­ic­an, four gray squir­rels were a gift from a U.S. am­bas­sad­or. But, “they es­caped and have been ex­pand­ing their ter­rit­ory ex­po­nen­tially ever since.”

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