Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

Squirrely history

By Claude Fischer


See that cute critter below on the right? It’s an eastern gray squirrel in what seems to be its natural habitat – near a tree, on a garbage can, in a town.

The squirrel, so ubiquitous in eastern cities, seems to have been around forever. In fact, Etienne Benson tells us in the December issue of the Journal of American History, the city squirrel is a relatively modern product of nineteenth-century environmentalists’ desires to bring nature, in the form of the country squirrel, to city people – so much a desire that they had to do it twice in thirty years.


Today’s environmentalists see the squirrel’s move to the bright lights as a big mistake. We can see it as another case of Americans’ repeated reshaping of the natural environment — here not for the usual economic reasons, but for moral uplift.

Civilizing squirrels and people

As Benson recounts, eastern gray squirrels had been largely unknown in early American cities. They lived in the woodlands and farmlands in the northeast, where their human neighbors viewed them largely as prospective meals or as vermin needing eradication; the few city-dwelling squirrels were pets.

In the 1840s to '50s, however, authorities in Philadelphia and a few other cities allowed squirrels, along with food supplies and nesting boxes for them, to be introduced into downtown squares, as a way to “beautify and enliven” and help “create oases of restful nature in an industrializing city.” Concern about the squirrels’ going after local songbirds and other issues led to cities reversing this policy by the mid-1860s; there were not that many town squirrels yet anyway.

Then, when big American cities in the 1870s created the grand, “wild” parks (New York’s Central Park being the major example), nature enthusiasts reintroduced the grey squirrels and in large numbers. This time the squirrels multiplied rapidly, spreading into the neighborhoods near and far from the parks. And, as cities grew outward over the next few decades, the squirrels’ suburban cousins also found urbanization a boon.

Homes provided sheltered nests in places like attics, garbage provided novel and tasty treats, telephone wires provided escape from predators, and, most of all, people provided free food. Feeding squirrels, especially helping them through winter, became a charming activity for old folks, young children, humane societies, and Harvard professors alike. City folk bought nuts from vendors to feed the squirrels. Anyone who treated the animals as sport or as food – like Italian immigrants charged with killing Central Park squirrels for dinner – earned contempt.

Welcoming and feeding squirrels in the heart of the city fit nineteenth-century, middle-class reformers’ ideologies in two complementary ways.

One, nature, reformers believed, is purifying, restorative, and uplifting. If the weary, undisciplined, and troublesome immigrant working class could not go to the wilderness to experience nature sublime, then parks and squirrels would bring nature to them.

Second, they thought that feeding squirrels, like caring for pets at home, instilled feelings of compassion and cultivated habits of charity in the young, preparing them to become sensitive middle-class adults. (See related posts: here and here.)

But the high densities and disease that the squirrels’ success brought eventually turned public opinion. So did a new way of thinking about the animal-human relationship. Around the 1980s, modern environmentalists began viewing the feeding of squirrels and their very presence in cities as unnatural and harmful to the species itself. Cities started posting No Feeding signs in parks and welcoming predators, hawks, to feast on the squirrels. And some cities deliberately culled the critters.

Changing nature

The squirrel story is the latest recounting of how Americans have altered the natural environment, a major subject in the growing discipline of environmental history. Better-known examples include the deforesting of New England as farming spread – and its reforesting as farming declined; the creation of bountiful agricultural lands out of what had been prairie and desert in the West; and the shrinking wetlands of Louisiana.

It was not just the white Americans landed here from Europe who changed the continent’s environment. The native people had been actively altering the landscape for generations, mainly by widespread use of fire, before the settlers arrived. Much of the land the newcomers saw was not “pristine” nature.

Of course, the settlers’ numbers and their agricultural technologies eventually altered the environment far more than the Indians had. And now we are engaged in the biggest nature-change of all – altering the climate.

The squirrels have survived the growth of New York City and thrived; maybe they can handle the next hurdle, too.

Cross-posted from Claude Fischer’s blog, Made in America: Notes on American life from American history.