September 1803, Meriwether Lewis and his faithful dog, Seaman, traveled down the Ohio near where it joined the Mississippi. He recorded: “I made my dog take as many [squirrels] each day as I had occasion for. I thought them when fryed a pleasant food.”
He assumed they were moving south because of the weather as they were swimming from northwest to southeast. He observed the phenomenon of migration for several days.
In 1811, Charles Joseph Labrobe wrote in The Rambler in North America of a vast squirrel migration that autumn in Ohio: “A countless multitude of squirrels, obeying some great and universal impulse, which none can know but the Spirit that gave them being, left their reckless and gambolling life, and their ancient places of retreat in the north, and were seen pressing forward by tens of thousands in a deep and sober phalanx to the South …”
Squirrel migrations across the upper Midwest, New England, and the Carolinas were observed in 1809, 1819, 1842, 1852, and 1856. In southeastern Wisconsin in 1842, a gray squirrel migration lasted four weeks and involved nearly a half billion squirrels.
Robert Kennicott in his article “The Quadrupeds of Illinois” in The Annual Report of the Commissioner of Patents for 1846 stated during one of these peak population occurrences when the squirrels were on the move that “it took a month for the mess of squirrels to pass through the area.”
As a boy, squirrel hunting was my obsession, and when I killed some squirrels, I always called it “a mess of squirrels” as my Dad had taught me. Now, I know where that “mess” word comes from.
Because of the numerous squirrel migrations, John Audubon and John Bachman were convinced that the squirrels on the move were a separate species from the gray squirrels and used the scientific name Sciurus migratorius.
One of the earliest referenced migrations occurred in 1749 in Pennsylvania. Records show the state spending 3 cents for each squirrel killed. Over 640,000 were turned in for bounty.
Sometimes, hunts were organized to control the migration. One hunt in 1822 killed almost 20,000 squirrels. These hunts continued through the 1850s. In 1857, it was reported a hunter killed 160 in one day.
The earliest recorded migration in the Mid-South I can find was reported in the Memphis Daily Appeal, Oct. 3, 1872: “Sportsmen may be seen coming into Memphis every evening from the Arkansas shore, loaded down with squirrels, which are counted by the dozen. They say the woods in Crittenden County are full of the little animals. Yesterday and the previous day countless numbers of them were seen crossing Marion Lake…”
September 1881, another large migration occurred near Reelfoot Lake: “Squirrels are crossing the Mississippi River south of Hickman in fabulous numbers. They are caught by the dozens by men in skiffs. They enter and pass through cornfields, destroying everything as they go….”
In the Arkansas Gazette, October 1885, it was reported: “Where the million of squirrels have come from, or what extent of country could ever produce so many, is the question…. A similar emigration of squirrels occurred in 1877…”
These migrations occurred mostly during the month of September preceding a year in which there was a large production of food (acorns). Many squirrels the following year had two liters in response. But nature threw them a curve ball when the year turned out to have low food production. Because of this, squirrels migrated trying to locate food. Even large rivers like the Mississippi were no deterrent.
When was the last migration? One occurred in 1968 in most of the eastern U.S. The last I can find for the Mid-South was in the fall of 1998. Many drowned squirrels were reported on the shores of Bull Shoals Lake, Ark. The incidence of road kills was several times higher than normal.