About 40 years ago, David Freeman was hunting outside Quitman, La., when he witnessed one of nature’s oddest spectacles. As he described it, a “kagillion squirrels” came through the woods, taking a good 15 minutes for them all to pass by.
“It was loud,” Freeman recalled. “It was kind of like a bunch of black birds in the wintertime. I don’t have any idea why they moved but I’ll never forget it.”
Rev. Lavelle Spillers heard of another migration that occurred in the1940s near the Arkansas-Louisiana line.
“An old timer that I deer hunted with told me of a time when he saw a squirrel migration across the Ouachita River,” said Spillers. “He said there were thousands, maybe tens of thousands, of squirrels that swam across the Ouachita. The migration lasted for several days if I remember right. He said they were so thick that he believed a man could have walked across the river on them.”
Squirrel migrations are a little understood phenomenon, but they once occurred fairly regularly, when the number of squirrels was staggering.
Naturalist John James Audubon and a companion witnessed one while floating down the Ohio River in 1819.
“About one hundred miles below Cincinnati . . . we observed large numbers of squirrels swimming across the river, and we continued to see them at various places. . . . At times they were strewed, as it were, over the surface of the water, and some of them being fatigued, sought a few moments’ rest on our long ‘steering oar,’ which hung into the water. . . . The boys, along the shores and in boats, were killing the squirrels with clubs in great numbers.”
In 1887, one of the largest known squirrel migrations took place when a mass of rodents left Northeast Mississippi and headed to Arkansas.
“The Watchman and Southron” reported: “They are crossing the Mississippi from innumerable points along a line (25 miles long). They are travelling in (the) thousands and the people who live along their line of march are killing them with sticks in countless numbers. Enterprising men are following them in wagons, slaughtering as they go, and shipping the carcasses to the nearest market. They seem to have lost all fear of man, and in some instances have attacked hunters.”
Squirrel migrations still occur, though in much less frequently than in the 19th century. One occurred about 35 years ago on Arkansas’ Lake Norfork. People reportedly scooped up squirrels with landing nets and whacked them with paddles to fill freezers, while others collected the exhausted animals and took them to the opposite shore and released them. Folks who happened to be on the water at the time watched as large fish, assumed to be striped bass, gulped down squirrels as they swam across the lake.
The most famous squirrel migration in modern times took place in the eastern U.S. in September 1968. Hundreds of dead squirrels were found on highways, and people reported finding large numbers of drowned squirrels in TVA lakes around the Smoky Mountains. In a week’s time, 117 carcasses were fished out of North Carolina’s Cheoah Dam raceway.
It is even believed that a migration happened a few years ago around Lake Allatoona in Georgia.
“We began to get calls and emails about squirrels swimming across the lake, and that is unusual,” said Chuck Waters, Game Management regional supervisor for Georgia.
No one knows exactly why squirrels move in such numbers. Some biologists have speculated that unknown psychological factors or an unusual flea infestation may cause the migrations, but the most common explanation is that the squirrels are reacting to overcrowded conditions.
There might also be a correlation between a lack of food and an exceptionally successful breeding season the year before. Squirrels may instinctively know that the existing mast will not support their numbers and respond by leaving the area.
“It tends to happen when there’s a real low food supply in an area,” said Waters. “We don’t know for sure, but that’s a reasonable formula.”
Squirrel hunters naturally would like to know if there is a way to take advantage of squirrel migrations. Some biologists have claimed that an increase in the number of roadkills may signal that a migration is in progress.
Vagn F. Flyger, the author of “The 1968 Squirrel ‘Migration’ in the Eastern United States” wrote, “The number of dead squirrels on the highways was spectacular.” Flyger, who had spent years collecting roadkills for study, estimated that the number of dead squirrels found on the highways in September 1968 were a thousand times the norm.
Waters, however, does not believe roadkills are necessarily a squirrel migration indicator, saying that there is no way to predict a migration, nor anything that can be done by managers.
“Increased roadkills happen at certain times of the year, anyhow, such as after the squirrels have had their litters,” said Waters.
If squirrel migrations are a natural phenomenon, hunters who spend a lot of time in the woods may wonder why they have never witnessed one. Waters believes that it probably happens more often than it is reported because it tends to be local and not witnessed by people. If the squirrels migrate from one patch of woods to another, but no one is there to document it, no one even knows it happened.
It also doesn’t mean that hunting is going to get easier by an increase in numbers. Published accounts frequently mention that most drown, die of exhaustion, or are killed by people, cars and predators along the way.
Ed Holder, outdoor writer for the “Orange Leader” in Texas, learned firsthand that a migration does not guarantee a limit of squirrels. In 1998, he wrote an article about a squirrel migration that took place near Beaumont. Two deer hunters had witnessed the event on the same tract of land a few days apart. One claimed there were “hundreds of squirrels . . . they were all around me, in every direction, as far through the woods as I could see.”
Holder and two companions headed to the woods for what they thought would be a short hunt, but as the morning progressed few squirrels were seen. In fact, there was no evidence that anything out of the ordinary had ever taken place.
Fortunately, hunters can take solace in the knowledge that a hunting spot is not ruined for long should squirrels decide to leave.
“Any effects are going to be short term,” said Waters “Small game are very prolific and nature abhors a vacuum. The squirrels will quickly fill in the gaps.”
So if you should witness a squirrel migration, don’t be concerned. Just enjoy the show because it might be a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
The Squirrel Rut
Squirrel migrations have no long-term effect on the area they vacate because the critters have an incredible rate of reproduction. Squirrels can actually mate throughout the year, but there are two main rutting periods.
The spring rut usually occurs in May and June, while the winter rut takes place from December through January. What’s truly interesting is that the length of ruts depend on local squirrel populations. If the numbers are high, the rut may last more than two months because it will take a longer time for the sows to be bred. Conversely, the rut might be fairly short if there are only a few sows in the area.
Squirrels normally will have one to three babies per litter, but the number can run as high as six or seven.
Despite reports to the contrary, there is no evidence that the gray and fox squirrel subspecies interbreed. There are significant variations in the color of squirrels between geographical regions, which probably give rise to claims that hybrids are being killed.
Gray and fox squirrels do not even interact well because the faster and more aggressive cat squirrels will outcompete their rusty-colored cousins. And, for reasons unknown, squirrel migrations appear to be a gray squirrel activity. Fox squirrels rarely participate in the phenomenon according to scientific reports.