Thursday, January 8, 2009

"Squirrel plagues" and 'side-hunts'...

American history as presented to elementary students offers an heroic view of wilderness settlement. Our founding fathers and pioneer ancestors "carved" civilization from trackless "wastes" as they "conquered" wilderness North America; its flora and fauna and its native peoples were swept aside. They called it progress. We celebrate these "victories" still.

Conversion of North American ecosystems to support agriculture and development continues today, though our values and our challenges have changed. Today, we seek to preserve and recover remnants of the wilderness and the wildlife now mostly gone while attempting to sustain continued economic growth--the present economic "correction" notwithstanding.

Our pioneer ancestors faced challenges that we can't appreciate, today. Biological abundance was a fact of wild America. Spectacular wildlife populations and vast forests assured a prevailing mythology of inexhaustible abundance. Frequent depredations brought on by overwhelming hordes of gray squirrels or Passenger Pigeons, and some large carnivores, particularly wolves, to row-crops, orchards, and livestock excused excesses; regular slaughters ensued.

Squirrel plagues...

This account of a squirrel migration, by Christian Schultz, is typical of early accounts. He described countless squirrels swimming the Ohio River, or drowning in the attempt, while he floated down the Ohio River during 1807.

The mast forests of eastern North America; our abundant oaks, hickories, chestnuts (formerly abundant), and beech supported huge populations of squirrels and giant flocks of Passenger Pigeons, long ago. White-tailed deer and Wild Turkeys, Ruffed Grouse and Rusty Blackbirds consummed abundant mast, too. Mast trees, particularly the oaks, produced massive crops some years followed by small crops other years, regionally. This boom and bust crop was critical for vertebrate wildlife, and caused population growth, declines, and migrations on a grand scale.

Synchronized masting over large areas ensured superabundant crops would overwhelm ravenous wildlife populations so future forests could seed from mast left behind. Abundant years were followed by years offering hardly any mast. These sometimes unpredictable and irregular masting cycles challenged squirrels, intractably bound to the earth and trees by gravity. Passenger Pigeons, on the other hand, enjoyed the freedom of flight. Massive pigeon flocks simply flew away from barren areas to discover abundant crops elsewhere. When pigeons found a heavy mast, they descended like a "plague of locusts" and devoured it in a "biological storm" of foraging.

This combination of cyclical synchronized masts and random "biological storms" occasionally left squirrels with empty cupboards, empty stomachs, and an itch to flee to abundance elsewhere: The great squirrel migrations followed. As settlement spread, squirrels were pressed further, and the inevitable intersection with human agriculture followed by crop depredations made these migrations "plagues" in the view of settlers.


Local pioneers gathered seasonally for spirited competitions to see which 'side' could kill the most squirrels, pigeons, deer, rattle snakes, or a mixed-bag. The objective of these 'side-hunts' often centered on a local scourge, frequently superabundant squirrels, and anything else passing in front of their gun sights.

Frontier hunts were important social gatherings where men exhibited their hunting prowess, and women and families sometimes gathered to barbecue the bag, put-up food, and consider future pairings. The results of frontier side-hunts occasionally made newsprint, if first-hand reports made their way to distant printers.

An 1801 'side-hunt' for squirrels, near Lexington, Kentucky, was reported in an early regional paper printed in Chillicothe, Ohio:

Scioto Gazette vol.II No.58 Thursday, May 28 1801.

Lexington, (Kentucky) May 18.


"On the 8th inft. the citizens of the

counties of Mercer and Lincoln, had

a hunting match, for a barbacue. The

match was to have been 25 hunters on

each fide, but only about 20 on a fide

met ; in the courfe of the day, they kil

led 5,442 fquirrels, and bets were offered

that the fame company could kill double

that number the day following. We have

the above information from one of the


No comments: