2018 Stories of the Year: Overabundance of squirrels dotted the landscape 

  • A surge in natural foods like nuts and berries led to an influx in rodents like squirrels and chipmunks. Once the food supply dwindled, it led those rodents on a frenzy for food. Courtesy file photo

Monitor staff
Published: 12/25/2018 7:00:26 PM

Nature is full of patterns that ebb and flow from year to year but in 2018 one of them really grabbed the region’s attention, becoming the subject of news articles, conversations online and in real life, TV jokes and even Halloween costumes.

It was the squirrel apocalypse, to give it one of many names: A huge spike in the population of small mammals, most noticeably gray squirrels, and a resulting spike in roadkill throughout New England.

The population explosion first drew the attention of gardeners and farmers, as they struggled with the effect of rodent raiders.

“It’s the worst year I’ve ever seen for them – ever,” George Hamilton of UNH Extension told the Monitor in August.

“We’ve been getting a ridiculous number of calls about squirrels – meaning gray squirrels, red squirrels, chipmunks,” said Emma Erler, education center program coordinator at the Extension’s office in Goffstown. “They were chewing the shoulders off of apples or eating the whole apple, taking immature peaches and plums off the trees before they even had a chance to get ripe. ... People are frustrated.”

Public attention exploded by September when young squirrels were leaving the family nest and making their way in the world. Their lack of experience dealing with automobiles as they sought out new homes produced a bonanza of roadkill so extensive that every broadcaster and newspaper from Quebec to Connecticut reported on it, social media was abuzz for weeks, and it even showed up in many a homemade Halloweens: Glue a few rodent Beanie Babies to your chest with a yellow dotted line down the middle and, hey presto, you’ve got a timely costume.

What caused it all?

Probably annual variations in mast, biologists’ term for natural woodland foods like nuts and berries. Plenty of natural food means plenty of rodent babies are born and survive.

“The last couple of years the acorn crop has been really high. When that happens, squirrel reproduction will pick up,” Karen Bordeau, a wildlife biologist with the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department, told the Monitor.

Then came the drought that started in early spring, which cut into the natural production of “soft mast” like flowers and early berries. Hungry rodent hordes born over the winter turned their attention to artificial soft mast growing in our orchards and berry farms and gardens.

Population booms like this one are often followed by a population bust, so 2019 might well see people wondering where all the squirrels went.

And the crows, ravens and turkey vultures that feasted on all the roadkill? They’ll probably be wondering, too.

David Brooks bio photo

David Brooks is a reporter and the writer of the sci/tech column Granite Geek and blog granitegeek.org, as well as moderator of Science Cafe Concord events. After obtaining a bachelor’s degree in mathematics he became a newspaperman, working in Virginia and Tennessee before spending 28 years at the Nashua Telegraph . He joined the Monitor in 2015.

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