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Squirrel Appreciation Day

January 23, 2011

Friday (January 21) was (drum roll, please)…Squirrel Appreciation Day! So I thought we could take a quick look at the history of squirrels in DC. Yes, squirrels have a surprisingly interesting history in DC.

(c) birdphoto.com

According to a 2008 Washington Post article by Janet Burkitt, in the late 19th century our native Eastern gray squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis) were almost nonexistent in the urban parts of DC because of over-hunting (not banned until 1906!). Wanting more nature in the growing capitol, there was a public push to reintroduce the species to parks such as Lafayette Square, the Mall, and the Capitol Grounds. A 1901 Post headline stated: “Several Pairs of Interesting Little Animals to Be Set Free Among the Trees.”

Can you get any cuter than that?

In a few years, the Lafayette Square squirrel population grew and attracted attention from both visitors and locals. Apparently, squirrel houses and drinking troughs were installed, and people were worried that a hard winter might harm the population (the public was reassured when the US Park Police stated that they fed the squirrels on a regular basis. This is, of course, now illegal on NPS land, just for the record!).

Other concerns soon followed. In 1912, officials considered forming a “cat patrol” to prevent “the untimely assassination of the little gray denizens of the city by murderous cat outlaws.” Ulysses S. Grant III, the director of the agency in charge of DC’s parks, received a letter expressing concern over the rise of the automobile in the city and its resultant danger to the squirrels’ health and well-being. The author’s idea was to create a series of overpasses which would allow squirrels to cross streets safely. He finished: “This improvised means would afford also something more than a symbol for Washington’s solicitude for the friendly, beautiful life of its native children.”

A 1904 Post article, calling for the reintroduction of more squirrels to more city parks, stated: “It is not the least of the charms of those grounds as they are to-day to see the familiar gray squirrels quietly feeding there, or bounding over lawns, or scampering up and through the trees…people passing through the Capitol grounds, whatever their hurry may be,…will stop for a moment and linger over the little gray figures, with all their associations of childhood in the woods.” So next time you moan when a squirrel navigates your well-thought-out plan to keep her out of your bird feeder, keep in mind that just a century ago they were not only a relative rarity, but also considered a DC treasure.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. Mickey permalink
    January 24, 2011 1:36 am

    Interesting blog, but sad that squirrel overpasses were nixed. That would be a colorful addition to D.C. We could sit around and watch the squirrels tightrope walking across Rock Creek Park. THANKS, and it puts a crashing halt to my attempts to fend off the squirrels from our bird feeder. But should we be feeding wild animals, even if we’re not on Park land?

Trackbacks

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