During the 18th century, squirrels were the sought-after, beloved companions of many Americans. Fast forward a hundred years, and squirrels in Ohio were so numerous that they had a bounty on their heads. From pets to pests to planters, squirrels have had a unique relationship with humans. Today, beyond serving as a bizarre bragging right for college campuses, they continue to be a crucial part of our ecosystems as seed sowers in wild and urban areas alike.
When settlers first came to Ohio in the late 1700s, about 95% of the land was forest, ensuring squirrels had plentiful food and abundant living space and encouraging a healthy and growing Sciuridae population.
“Squirrels could travel for miles and miles without touching the ground,” Rebecca Rose, Conservation Liaison at the Ohio Wildlife Center, said.
By the time the 20th century arrived and settlers moved in to live and farm, Ohio’s forest cover had dropped to nearly 10%.
With trees being downed by the day, squirrels ravaged the land in their search for food. They destroyed farms and left some families to go hungry. According to the 1898 book, “The Squirrel Hunters of Ohio,” squirrels ate so many crops that farmers were often forced to buy grain to be able to make bread.
“[Settlers] created the problem for themselves,” Rose said. “That’s what happens when you throw your system out of balance by overconsuming trees, or water or animals. You overconsume and you throw an ecosystem out of balance, and then bad things happen from that.”
It didn’t take long for the squirrel’s image to go from furry friend to fierce fiend once they threatened the settlers’ livelihoods. Ohio legislators passed a law in 1807 requiring taxpayers to turn in a certain number of squirrel hides every year. Those who turned in more than expected received two cents per extra squirrel hide, and those that turned in fewer paid three cents per missing squirrel hide.
Many people turned in more than the required hides, decimating the squirrel population. The squirrels that remained faced a particularly long and cold winter in 1807, left with little to eat as crops died and trees were cut for firewood. Legislators repealed the law in 1808.
“[The squirrels] were pretty much wiped out of Ohio,” Rose said. “[But] as our forests began to come back — [although] not to the level our forests were in the pre-settlement of Ohio — then squirrels started to come back.”
While squirrels ultimately repopulated in the following century, they have not gone back to ravaging farms.
Rose said large industrial farms today use chemicals and pesticides which deter squirrels from eating the crops. Small gardens and farms that don’t use chemicals, however, might still find the critters to be more fiend than friend; Rose herself said her brother once left on vacation and came home to find his garden’s corn eaten by local squirrels.
“If they’re there — the resources — they will take advantage of it,” Rose said.
The availability of food and resources is one reason that squirrels are drawn to urban and suburban areas. But squirrels have to watch and be observant; Rose said they’re “well aware” of human habits because their survival depends on it.
“Squirrels are very adaptable,” Rose said. “When you’re walking your dog, they know what a leash is because they just don’t run away. Whereas [if] the dog on the loose, [they’ll think], ‘Oh, yeah, that’s a predator.’”
Due in part to the availability of food in urban areas, there are now more squirrels in cities than in the wild. But the wild population is still significant, and Rose said there’s an average of 2-3 squirrels per acre in Ohio.
But no matter where they settle, squirrels today are crucial players in our ecosystems, burying seeds and acorns and often forgetting about them or not using them.
“[Squirrels are] seed dispersers, so they help spread trees and spread forests and other plants,” said Rose.
Squirrels also benefit the environment by being a “major prey species” according to Rose. Animals such as hawks, owls, coyotes, foxes and even raccoons all eat squirrels.
“If there are no squirrels, there are no predators,” she said.
While squirrels might be a nuisance when they chew holes in almost anything and eat the feed you left out for the birds, they’re ultimately a benefit to our ecosystem when left to do their job.
“It’s really important for us to be able to coexist with them peacefully, and we definitely can do that,” Rose said.