Visit a city park, and you're likely to come face-to-cuddly-face with a slew of squirrels. One may assume that parks are their natural habitat. But that wasn't always the case, according to a study from The Journal of American History.
The study, written by University of Pennsylvania professor Etienne Benson, explains that squirrels, like a lot of city dwellers, are transplants who adapted quite well to their new environs.
Squirrels began their slow odyssey toward urbanization in the 19th century, according to Benson's research. He cites an 1856 article in the New-York Daily Times that reported on a squirrel's appearance near City Hall which drew a "crowd of hundreds."
Via the Journal of American History:
"The people who introduced squirrels and other animals to public squares and commons in Philadelphia, Boston, and New Haven sought to beautify and enliven the urban landscape at a time when American cities were growing in geographic extent, population density, and cultural diversity."
The plan worked. Due to an intentional and consistent effort on the part of city planners and nature advocates, squirrels were seen as welcome guests. On his blog, Benson writes, "It was not an accidental or 'natural' process in any conventional sense of the term, although it was also not purely a human project. Squirrels too were crucial participants."
Benson writes that squirrels "were particularly well suited to the role of recipient of kindness because they not only accepted human charity but also seemed to actively seek it" by approaching visitors and extending their paws.
City dwellers were so enamored of the squirrels that they began planting nut-bearing trees. According to Benson, the critters eventually grew so obese from being fed by humans that squirrels begin falling from trees, apparently unable to keep their balance.
Gizmodo, citing Benson's study, writes, "the squirrel fad really took off in the 1870s, thanks to Frederick Law Olmsted's expansive parks." The theory, Benson writes, was "that nature in the city is essential to maintaining people's health and sanity, and to providing leisure opportunities for workers who cannot travel outside the city."
Squirrels were introduced to New York City's Central Park in 1877. The population quickly grew. Similar booms occurred at Harvard Yard and the National Mall in Washington, according to Benson.
Squirrels were also seen as having the potential to teach young boys the value of kindness. In a 1910 issue of Boy's Life, Ernest Thompson Seton, a naturalist who helped found the Boy Scouts, said, "Everyone who feeds squirrels will become their friend, and this means that before many months the young community will have been turned into squirrel protectors," according to Benson's research.
Fast forward a century or so and the squirrels are still here, able to beg for snacks without being annoying, a talent that pigeons have yet to master.