No avoiding the influx of N.H. squirrels

Monitor staff
Published: 9/7/2018 6:02:49 PM

It may come as a surprise to motorists who have spent the past few weeks trying not to run over squirrels darting across New Hampshire roads, but the rodent officially known as Sciurus carolinens is nowhere near as common in the Granite State as it seems.

New Hampshire, in fact, has had a limited hunting season for gray squirrels since at least the 1930s. Until last week, when the season opened, you couldn’t shoot a squirrel even though you might have run over one or two of them on your morning commute.

That limitation seems ludicrous when there are so many squirrels that the resulting roadkill has been noted by every news outlet in the state, including the Monitor. But Mark Ellingwood, a wildlife biologist for New Hampshire Fish and Game, said it reflects the reality for the species.

“We don’t have the squirrel population that they have down South (or) in the Midwest. We don’t have the acorns, the nut crop, that they do,” he said. “It’s only in the last 10 years that we’ve opened up the North Country to squirrel hunting because of a lack of squirrels there.”

Ellingwood noted that while many people think of squirrels in connection with downtown parks and suburban backyards, that’s not their real home.

“It’s good for your readers to know that squirrels are a woodland species that has learned to exploit the suburbs. Picture oak ridges and majestic hard mast stands, not urban parks, as their natural habitat,” he said.

The current population explosion of squirrels and other small rodents appears to be the result of last year’s large crop of acorns, nuts and fruits in New Hampshire woods and fields, a crop that wildlife biologists call “mast.” Having a widespread source of these foods created a healthy rodent population that produced lots of babies.

Then came this spring’s drought, which reduced the amount of food in the wild for that large population. This led them to raid fruit trees, berry bushes and vegetable gardens, creating a sort of rodent plague that generated complaints and calls for help all summer.

Starting in mid-August, drivers throughout southern New Hampshire started noticing an unusual number of rodents trying to cross the road, not always successfully. This roadkill surplus is not limited to southern New Hampshire: The Portland Press-Herald in Maine just wrote about it in that state.

It appears to be the result of the annual dispersal of juvenile squirrels looking to find their own homes before winter, greatly worsened by the large population and “driven by intense competition for limited foods,” Ellingwood said.

Which may not be as unusual as it seems.

“Every several decades, survival and reproductive factors come together to create significant squirrel movement across the landscape. The historic record includes numerous references to massive squirrel migrations ... which presumably resulted from circumstances similar to those we are seeing today,” he said. “We’re a modern society experiencing something that has happened for eons.”

Regardless of what gardeners and drivers think, plenty of predators and scavengers are enjoying the population boom. Ellingwood said squirrels make up a large part of the diet for bobcats and fisher cats.

As for the hunting season on gray squirrels, it started Sept. 1 and runs through Jan. 31, with a daily bag limit of five. That season was extended this year because the population seems to be increasing in the state, Ellingwood said.

Unlike some states further south, he said, squirrel hunting has never been particularly popular in New Hampshire. But that may change.

“This year may generate a squirrel hunting interest,” Ellingwood mused.

(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313, or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)

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