Did you know stampeding squirrels once overran Ohio, damaging crops?

Credit: DaytonDailyNews

In the early 1800s, squirrels invaded the Ohio Valley and destroyed corn crops in response to losing their homes and food sources.

Credit: DaytonDailyNews

When all those leaves fell off the trees one year, we were surprised to see a clump of dried leaves up high in the maple tree. We had seen these nests all over local subdivisions and woods but this was a first for us. We had a squirrel.

Oh, we had seen two squirrels running up and down the fence rows all summer but we had no idea that a secret construction project was going on behind the cover of our leafy green branches.

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Looking up at the nest, it appeared to be no more than an armful of leaves loosely stuck between some branches. We expected it to fall apart but it didn’t. I couldn’t help but wonder how they put these together without thumbs. And how do the loosely organized nests stand up to these winter winds?

I called Donna Lewis, the naturalist at the Clark County Park District, in hopes that she would know. I caught her at the Davidson Center at 5638 Lower Valley Pike on the far eastern end of Bethel Twp.

As Lewis explained, we weren’t the only people surprised to find a squirrel nest in our tree when the leaves fell.

Squirrels make their nests, or dreys, out of debris — generally large leaves and branches on the outside and smaller softer layers on the inside. They generally build two nests just in case one is blown down by a storm. When I looked for it, I did see a second nest in a neighbor’s tree. Often the winter nests are in an upper fork of a tree and not in the thin top branches like the summer houses.

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They also sometimes winter over in a hollow tree. Hopefully the elves don’t mind sharing.

When I searched online I found a beautiful drawing of a squirrel’s nest looking all rough and disorganized on the outside and lined with fur, dried grass, feathers and moss on the inside. It did look cozy. There was just enough room for a mama and a baby.

Squirrels are very resilient, Lewis said. Baby squirrels are able to survive a fall from the nest when they start exploring. Squirrels also love to solve problems

“I love the things that people do to try to stop the squirrels,” she said.

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I imagine I could fill this column with entertaining stories of how bird lovers spend most of the winter trying to outsmart the squirrels who rob their feeders.

But squirrels haven’t always been funny.

In the early 1800s, squirrels were a huge problem in Ohio. The population exploded in Kentucky and thousands of squirrels swam across the Ohio River to attack the corn fields of Ohio.

It was no lie, the great squirrel invasion. There were so many squirrels swimming across the river that they almost sunk one of Lewis and Clark’s canoes at one point. Really, it’s in the history books. Squirrel invasions, or stampedes, were a huge problem in Ohio and Indiana.

My great great great grandfather had to delay moving his family to his new farm because the squirrels had totally cleaned out the corn fields. The state of Ohio actually required that all farmers kill a certain number of squirrels. That had to be one of the strangest laws on the books.

Children with sticks in hand had to spend their day guarding fields from the squirrel invasion. And it was reported that clothing trimmed in squirrel fur was quite the height of fashion at that time.

I imagine the folks from 200 years ago would be amazed that some of us now put out corn to attract the squirrels to our yards and that the antics of these furry entertainers brighten our cold winter days.

And I find myself quite relieved that squirrel fur is no longer fashionable.