It’s hard to imagine hordes of squirrels swarming over farmland and decimating crops. But that’s what was happening in Ohio in the early 19th century.
The “plague” of eastern gray squirrels caused early settlers “famine and suffering,” as one author put it, to the point that the state legislature put a bounty on their bobbleheads.
In 1807, legislators said that each county taxpayer also had to submit the number of squirrel scalps required by their municipality. The number could be “not less than 10” or “exceed 100”, according to a 1948 study by Charles Dambach, Ohio State University Department of Zoology and Entomology.
The law even imposed a penalty of three cents per head of hair on taxpayers who did not meet the quota.
The kind of dense hardwood forests that covered Ohio in pre-settlement days are the preferred habitat of eastern gray squirrels. When European settlers arrived, they cleared the forests to build houses and establish farms, leaving the squirrels homeless and without the nuts, seeds, and fruits on which their lives depend.
Desperate, the grays migrated by the thousands, perhaps millions, to the farm fields, gobbling up young plants and leaving the pioneers with empty barns and pantries. Sometimes it would take a herd a month to move through an area, according to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources website.
Adding to the generosity, a particularly harsh winter in 1807-08 nearly wiped out squirrels from some areas of the state. Perhaps that is why the legislature repealed the squirrel scalp quota law in 1809.
And where was the familiar brown fox squirrel in all of this? Mostly absent. Fox squirrels prefer wooded terrain of 10 to 20 acres that border open agricultural fields or woods that border rivers and streams, according to the ODNR. It wasn’t until settlers cleared the dense forests that fox squirrels began migrating to Ohio from the plains of the Midwest.
Still, they may not have fared much better than their gray cousins who were blacklisted by the state. Eastern Fox Squirrels are a delightful addition to pots and are 50% larger than Grays. Squirrels were the last game animals in Ohio to gain the protection of a limited hunting season, and that wasn’t until the late 1880s.
The four types of squirrels that currently call Ohio home are the eastern gray, eastern fox, red squirrel, and southern flying squirrel. Of these, the flying squirrel may have the largest population, according to the ODNR, though that would be difficult to prove since flying squirrels are strictly nocturnal.
“I’ve never seen one, even though I’ve been to places where I know they exist,” said Mark Wiley, a wildlife biologist with the Ohio Division of Wildlife.
They also aren’t hunted, said Wiley, whose responsibilities include monitoring the harvest of small game species. Squirrel season is from September 1 to January 1, and the statewide bag limit is six per day. The types listed in the hunting regulations as legal are gray, fox, red, and black squirrels.
With its reddish color, white belly, and bushy tail, the red squirrel is the smallest tree squirrel in Ohio. It is also called a pine squirrel because it prefers to live in mature coniferous forests.
Unlike its gray and fox relatives, the red squirrel does not bury food to consume at a later date. Instead, it makes piles or “junks” of pineapples that can be 30 feet wide and more than a foot deep, according to the Mammals of Ohio Field Guide.
Interestingly, the squirrels listed as “black” in Ohio hunting regulations are actually gray squirrels. They have a genetic condition called melanism that makes their fur darker, Wiley said.
While they are actually gray squirrels, black squirrels are listed in the regulations “just so people know it’s legal to hunt them,” he said. Gray squirrels with melanin variations can also be white and brown.
The diets of the four Ohio squirrels differ. Southern flying squirrels eat hickory nuts, acorns, wild cherry pits, and other seeds, as well as insects, fungi, grapes, and the bark of some hardwood trees. Red squirrels eat buds and flowers in spring and nuts, fruits and seeds from cones in fall and winter.
Gray squirrels hang out in hardwood forests, but are also found in old-growth trees in urban and suburban parks, cemeteries, and backyards. They feed on the nuts, seeds and fruits of the trees, which together are called “mast”. Wiley said their rates of reproduction and winter survival in the spring can be affected if the “harvest” of masts is not good in the fall.
Fox squirrels also feed on mast, but their diets include corn and the “waste grain” that combinations leave in fields, he said. Therefore, the highest populations of fox squirrels tend to be in the agricultural areas of central and western Ohio.
And since they can still eat grain in the winter, fox squirrel numbers are less dependent on spar production than gray, though populations of both appear to be stable in recent years, Wiley said.
Far from being a pest, squirrels are now considered tremendous assets to the natural environment. Gray squirrels and foxes’ habit of burying food for future consumption, called caching, “is vitally important to our forest systems,” he said. “They only come back to discover a fraction of the acorns or other nuts that they bury, so they are actually planting seeds that then sprout.”
There is no evidence that squirrels today invade crop fields, ripping newly planted seeds from the ground or gobbling up young plants. At most, some can become nuisances chewing on wires or finding their way into attics.
In those cases, it’s best to call a licensed professional to remove them, Wiley said.
Scalps are not required.
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