Invading Hordes of Squirrels?

If it happened, it hasn’t happened recently. Nonetheless, many local county histories recall stories of hordes of squirrels swarming over farmland and devastating crops in 1800’s Ohio. The plague of squirrels was reportedly so great it caused famine and suffering. Some local histories report the population exploded in Kentucky and thousands of squirrels swam across the Ohio River to attack the cornfields of Ohio.

Early settlers cut down trees to build homes and establish farms, leaving the squirrels homeless and without the nuts, seeds, and fruit on which they depend. Apparently, the tree-dwellers were forced to scour the land in search of crops to eat. The squirrels were everywhere — in the fields, in the forests, in barns, and homesteads. When one considers the experience of watching these little rodents trying to breech a bird feeder today the image of multitudes of them assaulting a farmstead or swimming the Ohio River is as difficult to picture as flying pigs. But the story is widespread. 

“One thousand eight hundred and twenty-three was the squirrel invading year. At one point were the rodents crossed the Muskingum River William and James White killed enough to fill two three-bushel bags” according to Thomas W. Lewis in his history Southeastern Ohio and the Muskingum Valley, Vol. II in 1928.

A gray squirrel swims across the Ohio River

It was considered to be problem enough that the state legislature put a bounty on their furry little heads. One county treasurer researching antiquated Ohio tax laws explained that in 1807 the legislature passed a state law requiring every male person of military age to kill at least 100 squirrels per year and deliver the hides to the township clerks and/or county treasurer when they paid their property taxes. If they delivered the 100 squirrel hides, the taxpayer received a tax credit of $3 against their property tax. The law also levied a penalty of three cents per scalp for taxpayers who failed to meet the quota. It was reported that clothing trimmed in squirrel fur was the height of fashion at the time.

In 1819 American naturalist, John James Audubon, described four separate squirrel migrations in detail. Audubon was also impressed with the squirrels’ ability to swim across the Ohio River. Some histories indicate that in the days before the forests were largely cut down, movements of large numbers of gray squirrels occurred every five or ten years. While it is poorly understood why the squirrels moved in these mass migrations, generally in one-way movements, most of those on the move died in the process. 

“Observed a number of squirrels swimming the Ohio River and universally passing from the W. to the East shore they appear to be making to the south . . . . I should rather suppose that it is climate which is their object as . . . walnuts and Hickory nuts the usual food of the squirrel appears in great abundance on either side of the river” recorded Meriwether Lewis on September 11, 1803.

The gray squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) was one of the most populous species of wildlife in Ohio at the time of settlement. Early historical records speak of gray squirrel 

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