Where Did Our Squirrels Come From…and How Have They Migrated in Southern California?

This stereotypical Angeleno hipster loves avocado toast (minus the toast) for breakfast.

Most of us have squirrels in our yards…and if you’re anything like our family, you may even name your cute little co-residents (ours are George and Martha – no matter which house we’ve lived at, and no matter how many of them there are).  But did you ever stop to wonder where your furry friends came from?  Well, we were catching up on some reading yesterday, and ran across a fascinating little tidbit from the September, 2015 issue of Los Angeles magazine, explaining how the Eastern Fox Squirrel (the variety that likely lives in your yard and ours) got to Los Angeles. (Hint:  like many – if not most – of us Angelenos, they’re not originally from here.)  Here’s the scoop, from LA Magazine:

“The Veterans Administration campus near UCLA was once a home for former Civil War soldiers. Many were from the South, and some brought their pet squirrels along when they traveled west (“pets,” that is, until they were dropped into the stew pot). The fluffy-tailed rodents lived off table scraps until hospital administrators determined that government resources shouldn’t be used to feed the animals. In 1904, the vets were forced to release their fuzzy friends onto the VA grounds. Unlike western gray squirrels, which rely on native oak trees for food and shelter, eastern fox squirrels are skilled survivalists, thriving everywhere and eating anything. By the 1930s, the population had spread far enough to enjoy the Valley’s tasty citrus and walnut orchards. A telephone-wire highway system allowed the tree dwellers to avoid cars, so fox squirrels have now expanded well beyond L.A.’s boundaries. Since the more habitat-specific western grays stay mainly in Griffith Park and the Angeles National Forest, chances are that the varmint in your backyard is an adorable invader that’s here to stay.”

So that’s how most of our backyard squirrels got here.  But where have Fox Squirrels migrated since then, and where can you find their more native relatives?  Turns out the Natural History Museum has lots of data on that…and you can help it collect even more.  The NHM’s Southern California Squirrel Survey (part of its larger Citizen Science community collaborative program) collects squirrel location, habitat, and behavior data, as well as photos, submitted by folks all over SoCal…and it maintains an online photo archive and location map to help illustrate the reports.  According to the survey’s leaders:

“We’re interested in tracking the expansion of this introduced species, but we also hope to gain valuable insight into what is happening when the introduced eastern fox squirrel comes into contact with the native western gray squirrel. Both are large bushy-tailed tree squirrels but you can tell them apart by their color: eastern gray squirrels have reddish-brown fur and are commonly seen in urban and suburban neighborhoods; western gray squirrels have silver-gray fur and live in the forested areas of our mountains and foothills.

We’re also interested in observations of other squirrel species in southern California. The northern flying squirrel is a small brown-gray nocturnal species found in the conifer forests of the San Bernardino Mountains. The lodgepole chipmunk and Merriam’s chipmunk can be difficult to tell apart, but both can be found in parts of southern California. There are also several ground squirrel species that occur in southern California: the California ground squirrel, the antelope ground squirrel, the round-tailed ground squirrel, and the Mojave ground squirrel.”

Map showing central Los Angeles squirrel reports submitted so far to the NHM’s Southern California Squirrel Survey.

So if you enjoy watching the squirrels in your yard and would like to contribute photos and observations to the Survey, see the instructions at https://nhm.org/site/activities-programs/citizen-science/squirrel-survey/how-to-participate – it’s super easy, and you can get started today (or at least as soon as it stops raining).

Squirrel!
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About Elizabeth Fuller

Elizabeth Fuller was born and raised in Minneapolis, MN but has lived in LA since 1991 - first in the Sycamore Square neighborhood, and since 2012 in West Adams Heights/Sugar Hill. She was long-time board member of the Sycamore Square Neighborhood Association, currently serves on the board of the West Adams Heights/Sugar Hill Neighborhood Association, spent 10 years with the Greater Wilshire Neighborhood Council, volunteers at Wilshire Crest Elementary School, and is the co-owner/publisher of the Buzz.

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