The Great Squirrel Migration

While listening to a recent episode of Steve Rinella’s Podcast and they mentioned a natural phenomenon called a squirrel migration. The story intrigued me, so I did some research and I was not disappointed.

The best documented migration was in1968. Squirrels were on the move all over the eastern sea board.They ranged from Maine to the Carolina’s and as far west as Missouri.

According to an article from Mental Floss, the explanation for this furry squirrel migration turned out to be simple: The animals had run out of food. After a bountiful year for acorns and chestnuts in 1967, the squirrel population ballooned. When this was followed by a poor season for these nut-bearing trees, the squirrels were faced with no choice but to search for more fruitful forests.

The cycle of boom and bust have been going on for years, An article in the Delta Farm Press describes a lot of the early squirrel migrations that stretch as far back as the 1700’s.

One of the earliest referenced migrations occurred in 1749 in Pennsylvania. Records show the state spending 3 cents for each squirrel killed. Over 640,000 were turned in for bounty.

Hunting was used to control some migrations in order to try and limit crop damage. One hunt in 1822 killed almost 20,000 squirrels. These hunts continued through the 1850s. In 1857, it was reported a hunter killed 160 in one day.

September 1881, another large squirrel migration occurred, “Squirrels are crossing the Mississippi River south of Hickman in fabulous numbers. They are caught by the dozens by men in skiffs. They enter and pass through cornfields, destroying everything as they go….”

Observations were even made by famed naturalist Meriwether Lewis.  He was traveling down the Ohio River in 1803 with his dog when he recorded: “I made my dog take as many [squirrels] each day as I had occasion for. I thought them when fryed a pleasant food.”

He assumed they were moving south because of the weather as they were swimming from northwest to southeast. He observed the phenomenon of migration for several days.

Because of the numerous squirrel migrations, John Audubon and John Bachman were convinced that the squirrels on the move were a separate species from the gray squirrels and used the scientific name Sciurus migratorius. I am not sure when this was corrected, but we now know that there is no separate species.

The most recipient squirrel migration occurred in the fall of 1998. Many drowned squirrels were reported on the shores of Bull Shoals Lake, Ark. The incidence of road kills was several times higher than normal. This event seemed to be fairly localized and was no where near the migration of 1968.

Maybe on day I will actually witness a migration for myself. I would love to be sitting quietly in the woods watching the ground come alive with scurrying grey squirrels.