Uptown Squirrel

ROMAN MARS: This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars. This past fall, 200 people gathered at the Explorers Club in New York City. The building was once a clubhouse to famed naturalists and explorers. Now it’s an archive of ephemera and rarities from pioneering expeditions–from treks to the world’s tallest mountains, the North Pole, and the moon. Woolly mammoth tusks Frame a fireplace, a menacing polar bear towers near the landing with claws at the ready, and a cheetah–rumored to have been shot by Teddy Roosevelt–sits on a plinth just upstairs.

KAITLYN SCHWALJE: The gathering was in honor of a new expedition–One in search not of a single animal but of thousands.

ROMAN MARS: That’s reporter Kaitlyn Schwalje.

KAITLYN SCHWALJE: The club was hosting a biological census–an ecological survey, so difficult, so complicated, and so taxing that it had never been attempted before and may never be attempted again.

JAMIE ALLEN: It is a really big project. I don’t think we’ve ever been involved in a project of this scope in our lives. It’s like moving a small, little army around.

KAITLYN SCHWALJE: This is Jamie Allen. The census was his idea. And when he started, it was a small operation.

ROMAN MARS: But now Jamie is merely the tip of a vast pyramid of census-related personnel, including a logistics chief, a chief cartographer, a veterinarian, an epidemiologist, a specialist from the Fish and Wildlife Service, and of course a web team.

KAITLYN SCHWALJE: And that’s just the core staff. Below them are the foot soldiers–the volunteers who must go out into the field and do the actual counting.

JAMIE ALLEN: 300+ volunteers counting 700 hectares–a hundred meter by a hundred meter–and 3,000+ sheets of paper that we have to… It’s… Yeah.

KAITLYN SCHWALJE: A vast filing system, multiple offices, and a team of hundreds all for the sake of answering one question.

JAMIE ALLEN: I want to know how many squirrels are in Central Park.

ROMAN MARS: Squirrels. They’re counting squirrels.

STU: Date: October 14th, 2018. Time: 5:26.

KAITLYN SCHWALJE: On a chilly Sunday evening, I’m following Stu–one of the Central Park census volunteers–around the park’s northern end. We’re on the hunt for eastern gray squirrels, which is like the squirrel. It’s what you’ll find in just about any American city, but especially Central Park.

STU: So we need to be on this path down here.

KAITLYN SCHWALJE (FIELD TAPE): Okay. How do we get in there?

STU: I’ll pretend you’re not here, right?

KAITLYN SCHWALJE: Following his lead, we head off the path over fences and through tall brush.

KAITLYN SCHWALJE (FIELD TAPE): My face is going to be covered in poison ivy soon.

STU: Oh god, without a doubt.

KAITLYN SCHWALJE: We’re slowly making our way to his designated area: Hectare 38E.

ROMAN MARS: Hectares are plots of land that measure a little less than two and a half acres each. The job of a census volunteer is to count all the squirrels they can find within their assigned hectares and only their assigned hectares.

KAITLYN SCHWALJE: Although this doesn’t stop stew from getting incredibly excited by every squirrel he sees.

STU: Look, there’s a squirrel. I can’t count you, buddy, you’re not in my hectare. Go on. Back. See you later.

ROMAN MARS: After every hectare in the park has been surveyed, all the data will get plugged into a wildlife counting formula popularized by the great mid-century Danish American squirrel biologist, Vaughn Fleeger. The formula will account for squirrels that were double counted and ones no one managed to find and then finally spit out a number that the world has been waiting for: the squirrel abundance number–the total population of eastern gray squirrels in Central Park, give or take.

KAITLYN SCHWALJE: At which point you would be totally justified in asking, as many do, “What precisely is the point in knowing the squirrel abundance number?”

JAMIE ALLEN: What they’re saying is, like, “You’re counting squirrels?” Squirrels have a specific context in people’s minds and it’s to be ignored. It’s assumed, I think, that–because they’re so common–we know everything we need to know about squirrels. But the opposite is true.

ROMAN MARS: The very fact that no one has bothered to do a Central Park squirrel census before to gather this most basic of data points about one of the most common animals in our landscape reveals a kind of societal blindspot we have in regard to squirrels.

KAITLYN SCHWALJE: For a long time now, we’ve taken them for granted, including the story of where all these squirrels came from.

ROMAN MARS: The squirrels we see in our cities and towns are so every day–so ubiquitous–so just there that it’s easy to assume they’ve always been there. But the truth is they haven’t.

ETIENNE BENSON: Mid-19th century, you could walk through a place like Boston or Philadelphia or Manhattan, and you would not see a single squirrel.

KAITLYN SCHWALJE: This is Etienne Benson. He’s a historian of environmental science at the University of Pennsylvania, and he says that the cities of the early 19th century were effectively squirrelless.

ROMAN MARS: These were animals you could only see if you left the city.

ETIENNE BENSON: And then even perhaps left the farm and went deep into the woods. And it was only when you went deep into the woods that you would have the chance to see something like a squirrel.

ROMAN MARS: In fact, squirrels were considered so elusive that the very wealthy liked to keep them as exotic pets. In 1856, an article in the New York Times described how one such pet escaped from its owner’s home in Manhattan. And when it was discovered in a tree, a crowd of people gathered in amazement, trying to lure it down. Eventually the crowd grew so large and rowdy that the police had to forcibly disperse it.

KAITLYN SCHWALJE: So how did these eastern gray squirrels–these reclusive woodland creatures–make their way into our urban spaces? “Well, for starters,” says Etienne, “they didn’t–at least not on their own.”

ETIENNE BENSON: What was so fascinating to me was to find out that they had been intentionally introduced.

ROMAN MARS: The squirrels that we all take for granted as we walked through the park or on our way to the gym or the office are only there because we put them there. They were deliberately brought into cities and fed and sheltered.

KAITLYN SCHWALJE: The first city that we know of to introduce squirrels was Philadelphia in 1847. Like many east coast cities of the mid 19th century, it was already a highly urban environment. People yearned for a taste of the wilderness that the squirrel was seen to embody.

ETIENNE BENSON: They were captured in the wilderness, brought into the city, and placed on a single tree almost as if they were animals in a menagerie or a zoo.

ROMAN MARS: The tree was in the middle of a small public square, and it was equipped with a wooden shelter and a fence so the squirrels could stay safe from the elements and any would-be predators in their little squirrel home.

KAITLYN SCHWALJE: A few other cities, like Boston, replicated this model. And at first the number of squirrels was teeny tiny. Philadelphia started out with only three.

ROMAN MARS: Think of it as a trial run.

KAITLYN SCHWALJE: Only this first trial run–it went terribly.

ETIENNE BENSON: When I started working on this topic, I thought, “Okay, you introduce a few squirrels into an urban park. In a few years, you’re going to have thousands of squirrels–no problem.” But at the very beginning, they were essentially incapable of surviving.

KAITLYN SCHWALJE: The cities of the 19th century just didn’t have the kind of large parks and extensive tree cover we see today.

ETIENNE BENSON: When you thought about urban landscapes, they were very unfriendly to an animal that required trees for food.

ROMAN MARS: In the classic storybook image of a squirrel, it’s always clutching an acorn–and that’s basically true. A wild squirrel requires deciduous nut bearing plants such as oak trees in order to survive.

KAITLYN SCHWALJE: Without trees, the city had to provide for the squirrels. But the squirrel feed often proved to be either insufficient or nutritionally worthless. So those first squirrels either died off, were killed, or were adopted as pets.

ROMAN MARS: In 1855, a reporter for the Boston Evening Transcript described the introduction of squirrels as an “absurd and reprehensible experiment,” all of which raises a question.

ETIENNE BENSON: Why are there now squirrels everywhere in American cities?

GABRIEL WILLOW: I think it’s more a model of if you build it, they will come.

KAITLYN SCHWALJE: Gabriel Willow is a naturalist who specializes in animal species that live in urban environments.

GABRIEL WILLOW: So I study nature and educate people about the natural world, specifically in New York City.

KAITLYN SCHWALJE: And he says that, in the late 19th century, green spaces like New York’s were undergoing a transformation. Areas of open land–once multipurpose fields used for everything from cattle grazing to slaughterhouses and militia training–were being transformed into spaces of leisure. And by the 1870s, city dwellers were leaving behind small, busy squares in favor of large, idyllic parks.

ROMAN MARS: And although they were designed for people, these new urban oases just might be the best thing to ever happen to the eastern gray squirrel.

KAITLYN SCHWALJE: Because the parks weren’t just big, they were also designed to mimic the natural world. Take Central Park and Prospect Park in New York, for example–both designed by Calvert Vaux and Frederick Law Olmstead.

GABRIEL WILLOW: They were working with the existing geology and hydrology. They took naturally existing small ponds or marshy areas and made lakes out of them.

KAITLYN SCHWALJE: They also chose to keep the area’s dramatic rocky outcroppings instead of blasting them away–as had been done with the rest of the city’s grid.

GABRIEL WILLOW: And so they were working with certain natural elements.

ROMAN MARS: These natural parks were filled with hedges and lakes and streams and lots and lots of trees, including–to the great fortune of squirrels everywhere–oak trees.

GABRIEL WILLOW: Red oak is very common. White oak is very common. Pin oak is very common. There’s a lot of acorns around.

KAITLYN SCHWALJE: Everything a would-be squirrel resident might want or need.

ROMAN MARS: And it was in this oakdotted, acorn strewn landscape in Central Park in 1877 that a handful of eastern gray squirrels were introduced for a second trial run.

ETIENNE BENSON: And it was in that landscape that these squirrels virtually exploded in population.

ROMAN MARS: By the turn of the century, what had started as just a few dozen squirrels now numbered in the… Actually this is around the time that people just stopped counting.

KAITLYN SCHWALJE: I mean, how could you with so many squirrels running around? Guesses range from the high hundreds to over 5,000. In Central Park and beyond, squirrels became as commonplace as fire hydrants and telephone poles and all the other newfound accessories of the urban landscape.

ROMAN MARS: And as this new approach to urban parklands spread to other cities, so did the idea of populating them with squirrels.

KAITLYN SCHWALJE: Eastern gray squirrels were introduced again to places like Philadelphia and Boston and West Coast cities, like Seattle, Vancouver, and San Francisco. Eastern grays were also introduced overseas to England, Italy, and South Africa.

ROMAN MARS: And it wasn’t just the oak trees in these newly lush environments that we’re providing sustenance for the squirrels. At the time, people considered it their moral duty to feed them.

ETIENNE BENSON: Up until the early 20th century, the dominant way of understanding the proper relationship between humans and animals in the city is centered on charity. It’s centered on the idea that humans have an obligation–a responsibility–to create a friendly, welcoming environment for certain kinds of animals to flourish.

ROMAN MARS: The ideal city was one that provided a home for good animals and banished the bad.

GABRIEL WILLOW: So if you go back even and read, like, John James Audubon’s account of bird species, he might talk about the “bloodthirsty hawk” or the “wiley raven.” So people used to shoot hawks and falcons and eagles and other birds of prey because they’re predators. Because they would eat other animals, people thought, “Oh, they’re just mean.”

KAITLYN SCHWALJE: Whereas other animals–like pigeons and, of course, squirrels–were considered peaceful. More than that, they interacted with humans. The site of an undomesticated animal not only approaching you but effectively communicating with you by soliciting food was a sign of its civilized nature. So it was only proper that you should feed them.

ROMAN MARS: Historians would later give these wild animals and the residents who brought them into the city a name: The More-than-Human-Community.”

ETIENNE BENSON: So the idea was to create a kind of… Well, you might even call it a kind of fantasy world in which every animal that is in the city is living peacefully with the others at the indulgence of the humans that run the place.

KAITLYN SCHWALJE: Thanks to the more-than-human-community model, urban squirrels lived large for decades, nuts, trees and humans feeding them extra food and killing off all their predators. They had it made.

ETIENNE BENSON: And in the case of New Haven, for example, there’s even an article that I found that describes them as becoming so obese that they began to fall from the trees.

KAITLYN SCHWALJE: As the 19th century led into the 20th and the squirrels were busy spreading out into suburban attics and college campuses, no one stopped to wonder if there could be such a thing as too many squirrels.

ROMAN MARS: But as hard as it is to admit, there is now evidence to suggest there might actually be too many.

MATTHEW HARPER: There is an ongoing attack against the power grid that’s being led by squirrels.

KAITLYN SCHWALJE: Matthew Harper is an information security expert with 20 years of experience and he says, “When it comes to threats to the U.S. power network, forget terrorism. Forget Russian hackers.”

MATTHEW HARPER: In the case of the utility infrastructure, it’s the humble squirrel that’s causing most of the issues.

ROMAN MARS: By some estimates, one out of every five power outages in the United States are squirrel-related.

KAITLYN SCHWALJE: To be fair to the squirrels, they really start out with the best of intentions. Squirrels need to build nests, and they usually build those nests in trees. But they also build them in anything that looks like a tree, like utility poles or transformers. And like all rodents, a squirrel’s incisor teeth never stop growing, so they have to chew to keep them filed down. They mostly chew bark and branches and nuts, but they also chew things like power cables. So inevitably some unlucky squirrel will gnaw through the insulation of a power line or step on two exposed wires at the same time and… Killing the squirrel and shorting the system.

ROMAN MARS: To keep track of all those system shorts, Matthew runs a website called Cyber Squirrel One.

MATTHEW HARPER: Which is a website which tracks squirrel activities and attacks against the power grid.

KAITLYN SCHWALJE: And yes, this is real. Cyber Squirrel One consists of a big map marking the largest power outages caused by squirrels in the past 30 years. Pick a year, and you can find hundreds of pins indicating squirrel incidents, splayed out across the lower 48 in Canada.

ROMAN MARS: There’s a dropdown menu if you want to see outages caused by other animals, but don’t bother. When it comes to power problems, it’s mostly just squirrels.

KAITLYN SCHWALJE: Can you give me some examples of squirrel-related power outages?

MATTHEW HARPER: Alright, I’m just pulling it up now. “Squirrel…” Here we go. Last year in 2018, a college in California actually ended up having to cancel classes.

ROMAN MARS: Then in November of 2018, a single roving squirrel knocked out three substations in upstate New York, causing a string of power outages for more than 12,000 people.

KAITLYN SCHWALJE: That same month, another squirrel took out a polling station in Virginia on the day of the presidential election.

ROMAN MARS: Then in December, a squirrel cut the power of an entire shopping mall in South Carolina one week before Christmas.

MATTHEW HARPER: A particular case in Canada back in April of 2009 impacted 55,000 people.

KAITLYN SCHWALJE: And those are just the big ones. In Austin, Texas, squirrels were responsible for over 400 separate outages in 2015 alone.

ROMAN MARS: But the greatest rodent-related outage of all occurred in December of 1987 in the last place you’d ever expect to find an electrocuted squirrel. That story and more after this… It happened on December 9th, 1987.

JOSEPH SANGIOMINO: It’s kind of sad for me because I am a true animal lover.

KAITLYN SCHWALJE: Joseph Sangiomino is a retired member of the New York Stock Exchange. That means he used to be one of those guys you’d see yelling and screaming on the trading room floor.

JOSEPH SANGIOMINO: And it’s simply this. Back in the day–back in 1987–the New York Stock Exchange was everything to the world.

KAITLYN SCHWALJE: Back then, in the ’80s, the exchange controlled 85% of the global stock market, and so traders like Joe–they were the kings of Wall Street.

JOSEPH SANGIOMINO: We were the place to go. We were so proud to wear our white badges with our numbers on it and say that we worked on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange.

ROMAN MARS: But there was also another exchange in town that was slowly chipping away at their market share: their biggest rival, NASDAQ.

KAITLYN SCHWALJE: The NASDAQ was an automated exchange that ran on computers. It didn’t need floor traders, and the traders that the New York Stock Exchange, who made trades in person by hand, hated it.

ROMAN MARS: So Joe still remembers the glorious day that a rumor began to spread among the 4,000 traders on the floor of the exchange.

JOSEPH SANGIOMINO: We start hearing that NASDAQ just had a technical glitch. And by the time it got from one end of the exchange to the other, it might’ve took about 30 seconds. Just word of mouth–it just flies.

KAITLYN SCHWALJE: Finally, the electronic ticker tape scrawling along one of the walls of the exchange lit up with the news.

JOSEPH SANGIOMINO: And the ticker tape was just flying across, and we knew.

ROMAN MARS: Their deepest, darkest wish had come true. NASDAQ had failed.

JOSEPH SANGIOMINO: It was really a dream, and the trading floor erupted. I mean, it was deafening.

KAITLYN SCHWALJE: For 82 minutes on December 9th, 1987, NASDAQ was offline, losing an estimated 20 million trades.

JOSEPH SANGIOMINO: And then we find out that it was a squirrel.

ROMAN MARS: A squirrel had chewed through a power line in Connecticut where NASDAQ drew its electricity. But it did not affect the New York Stock Exchange–much to the everlasting joy of traders like Joseph Sangiomino.

JOSEPH SANGIOMINO: To NASDAQ, that squirrel was Godzilla. To us on the New York Stock Exchange, that little squirrel was Superman because for 80 minutes we were the kings again. Unfortunately, the squirrel paid the ultimate price for our few hours of glory that particular day.

KAITLYN SCHWALJE: America’s squirrels have also been wreaking havoc overseas In Great Britain, eastern gray squirrels introduced in 1876 quickly began to displace the native red squirrel, driving it to near extinction.

ROMAN MARS: And the eastern gray squirrel might be cute, but the red squirrel is super cute. To Google it is to love it.

KAITLYN SCHWALJE: And now there’s only a few small pockets of red squirrels left, in Northern England and Scotland–this despite a massive eradication campaign to keep the American invaders out of the Scottish highlands. In Europe, they’re officially an invasive species.

ROMAN MARS: But even as American squirrels were taking out shopping malls and stock exchanges and invading foreign countries, the very things that allowed them to proliferate in the first place were slowly being taken away.

KAITLYN SCHWALJE: Starting in the mid 20th century, ecologists, wildlife managers, and park officials started to reexamine America’s approach to wildlife. They began to argue that predators like coyotes and hawks should no longer be hunted for the sake of a more-than-human-community.

ETIENNE BENSON: That starts to get replaced with a really different view–this ecological view in which we understand those relationships of predation as essential to the ecosystem as a whole.

KAITLYN SCHWALJE: In this new ecological model, the ideal environment was no longer one that corresponded to notions of civilized versus uncivilized species, but one in which a variety of species–predator and prey alike–maintained a natural population balance with only minimal human intervention.

ROMAN MARS: It took a few decades for this idea to spread from the national parks into the cities. But by the 1980s, it had arrived–along with the predators.

KAITLYN SCHWALJE: Which for an ecologically-minded naturalist, like Gabriel Willow, is a wonderful thing.

GABRIEL WILLOW: The coyotes are coming back on their own. We’re not bringing them back. Ravens are nesting in New York City within the last 15 years. We did not reintroduce them. The red-tailed hawk came back of its own accord. Other species we intentionally reintroduced like peregrine falcons, and they’re thriving. New York City has the highest population density of peregrine falcons in the world.

KAITLYN SCHWALJE: For most of us, the death of a few squirrels seems like a small price to pay in exchange for this new found biodiversity. Today, there’s no shortage of webcams set up by people who have discovered a hawk’s nest outside their 12th floor apartment window.

ROMAN MARS: And while we’ve been busy welcoming the squirrel’s predators back into our cities, we’ve also begun to finally withdraw our charity.

GABRIEL WILLOW: I think everybody should go check out squirrels. They’re pretty cool. I’m Team Squirrel. I just don’t think we need to be feeding them.

KAITLYN SCHWALJE: Gabriel and other naturalists think feeding squirrels has no place in the new ecological model. Providing bread and other unnatural foods can lead to a variety of health problems. And acclimating squirrels to hand-feeding can make them overly dependent on humans and possibly prone to unstable population booms–none of which is ultimately good for the squirrels or the larger environment.

ROMAN MARS: Which is why, 142 years after welcoming squirrels into the fold of our more than human community, New York City is done giving handouts.

HEARING SPEAKER: Good morning. Today is March 1st, 2019, and the time is 12:05. Welcome to Pelham Fritz Recreation Center.

KAITLYN SCHWALJE: This past winter, the New York City Parks Department held a hearing for a proposed rule change that would make it illegal to feed any wild animal in the parks.

HEARING SPEAKER: This hearing is intended to solicit comments regarding the proposed rule changes. These comments will become part of the public record.

KAITLYN SCHWALJE: Gabriel Willow was there, too.

ROMAN MARS: Although it didn’t go down quite the way he thought it would.

GABRIEL WILLOW: I didn’t really expect it to be quite as skewed as it was in terms of almost everybody there was speaking against the regulations.

NEW YORKER #1: It’s a criminal act that runs against the morals and rules of a civilized society.

NEW YORKER #2: New York Parks says that the squirrels should be squirrels, they should be animals, and they should flourish like they do in the wild. Except for one thing–the parks aren’t the wild.

GABRIEL WILLOW: I don’t know that I’ve encountered that many squirrel and pigeon feeding fans in one place before.

KAITLYN SCHWALJE: And although they agreed the animals should be eating healthy food, they were not buying into the ecological model.

NEW YORKER #3: The parks are not nature. They’re an artificial situation. We are part of their environment. You can’t change that.

KAITLYN SCHWALJE: When people expressed concern that certain animals in certain parks might starve, Gabriel tried to stand up for the hands-off approach.

GABRIEL WILLOW (FIELD TAPE): The problem of them starving due to lack of food is because there’s a higher population because they’re being fed. It’s a cycle.

KAITLYN SCHWALJE: But the applause was tepid.


GABRIEL WILLOW: It was not as poorly received as the founder and director of the Wild Bird Fund.

KAITLYN SCHWALJE: She was also against feeding.

GABRIEL WILLOW: She was actually booed.

KAITLYN SCHWALJE: Exactly what effect the blanket ban would have on wildlife populations is unclear. But regardless of the ecological impact, the biggest takeaway from the hearing was that the concept of the more than human community was still going strong.

NEW YORKER #4: I’m here today as a voice for New York City’s non-human residents because I see what’s happening to our wildlife neighbors as really, truly tragic.

ROMAN MARS: The feeling that these animals are fellow citizens and should be treated with the same consideration has never fully gone away.

NEW YORKER #5: It is not just about what we want. It’s about what the squirrels and all of the other-than-human beings in our parks want, too. And they are constituents of New York City.

KAITLYN SCHWALJE: People love to feed the animals in the park. On any park bench in any city, you’ll see people throwing crumbs to the birds and the birds approaching for more. It’s one way we feel a connection to nature. For just a moment, both human and animal are doing something together. That shared experience between species–that’s what the people at the hearing didn’t want taken away.

ROMAN MARS: Gabriel Willow also believes that there is value in connecting with these animals, but he sees it as a reason not to feed them.

GABRIEL WILLOW: I think people really crave direct interaction and connection with nature. And so what I was saying when I spoke was like, “Look, please go to the park. Observe wildlife. Feel that connection. You don’t need to touch them. You don’t need to pet them. You don’t need to hold them. You don’t need to feed them. It’s actually more interesting and more valuable to stand back and see an animal exhibiting a more natural behavior.”

ROMAN MARS: Watch a squirrel long enough and you’ll see it play tricks on other squirrels.

KAITLYN SCHWALJE: If a squirrel carrying an acorn believes it’s being watched, it will dig a hole, pantomime putting the acorn in the hole, and then cover the whole backup–all while hiding the real acorn in its mouth–just to throw its fellow squirrels off the scent.

ROMAN MARS: Squirrels have been seen carefully organizing their acorns by size and shape before they bury them. Biologists believe it’s a mnemonic device that helps the squirrels remember what they buried and where.

GABRIEL WILLOW: They have a specific call when they see a predator. So if you learn a little bit of squirrel language… Like, I know the hawk call, so if I hear that, I’ll look up and often see a hawk. So for them to just sort of allow us to be there but go about their day-to-day life is so much more powerful for me.

ROMAN MARS: There’s more than one way to connect to the animals with whom we share our cities–whether it’s listening to the yipping of coyotes in the middle of the night, setting up a webcam for the hawk nest outside your window, or counting all the squirrels in Central Park. In March, Jamie Allen and the other team members of the squirrel census finished gathering their data. They plan to reveal the squirrel abundance number in June.

KAITLYN SCHWALJE: Etienne Benson says that he doesn’t know how many squirrels there are in Central Park, but he thinks he does understand why everyone is so eager to find out.

ETIENNE BENSON: One of the appeals of a squirrel census is just the same appeal that has existed since the 1850s, which is that it’s clear to people that the world around them is not only inhabited by humans–that it is this multi-species place. And I think there is a need and a desire there to know something about your neighbors.

ROMAN MARS: The census is a form of appreciation–a way of recognizing that the squirrels are there–and that in itself is beautiful. Since we first broadcast this story, the 2018 Central Park Squirrel Census was released, and they found 2,373 squirrels. In 2020, the Squirrel Census did another flash count of 24 other New York City parks and found an additional 433 squirrels. Those numbers sit perfectly in the middle of the range I imagined in such a way that I do not know if that seems like a lot of squirrels or very few. But I’m grateful we have the number. Nonetheless. 99% Invisible was produced this week by Kaitlyn Schwalje, and edited by Joe Rosenberg. Mix by Sharif Yousef. Music by Swan Real, Jenny Conlee, Nate Query, and Jon Neufeld. Special thanks to Susan Kirby and Andrew Christopher, whose interviews did not make this episode but without whose help we could not have made this story. Kathy Tu is our executive producer. Kurt Kohlstedt is our digital director. Delaney Hall is our senior editor. The rest of the team includes Chris Berube, Jayson De Leon, Emmett FitzGerald, Martín Gonzalez, Christopher Johnson, Vivian Le, Lasha Madan, Gabriella Gladney, Kelly Prime, Jeyca Maldonado-Medina, Sarah Baik, Neena Pathak, and me, Roman Mars. The 99% Invisible logo was created by Stefan Lawrence. We are part of the Stitcher and SiriusXM Podcast Family, now headquartered six blocks north in the Pandora building… in beautiful… uptown… Oakland, California. Home to the Oakland Roots Soccer Club, of which I’m a proud community owner. Other teams may come and go, but the Roots are Oakland first, always. You can find us on all the usual social media sites as well as our brand new Discord server. That’s where I like to hang out. We talk about The Power Broker. We talk about architecture. We talk about all kinds of things–movies, music… There’s a link to that, as well as every past episode of 99PI, at 99pi.org.



Reporter Kaitlyn Schwalje spoke with Jamie Allen, creator of the Squirrel Censusw; Etienne Benson, Historian of Ecology at the University of Pennsylvania; Gabriel Willow, Naturalist; Matthew Harper, Information Security Expert; Joseph Sangiomino, retired Wall Street trader; Susan Kirby, New York resident.

  1. Jeff

    What I’d be interested to know is if the squirrels currently inside central park are the original squirrels introduced/stuck there as the city grew around it. I can’t imagine the squirrels there are able to come and go to other nearby parks because they’d be unable to cross the roads or climb on trees or power lines between parks (I don’t believe there are any power lines into/out of central park.

    1. Tom Bombardil

      Urbanisatie of spicies is going quiet fast, especially if they have a high turn over rate (how fast the next generation is grown up). And the adaptees to these new environments thrive the best, so certain insurmountable obstacles from our point of few. Are by no mean insurmountable for them.

  2. Tom Bombardil

    Great story. I’m a Dutch citizen and a biologists, but afther high school I went on exchange to the USA, and was surprised by the squirrels (for about a week). Afther that I realised there just as much as a plague as all the pigeons in Europe are. Now as a biologists I think them even more of a danger for the environment, due to there massive numbers.

    But what I wanted to share is that the curator of the Nature history museum in Rotterdam collects, and displays animals that ……. with human society, one of the most famous is the “CENTRE stone marter”, who manged to shut down the biggest machines in the world! In “dead animals with a story”.

  3. Diana P

    Why are there not metal bands around the power poles to stop the squirrels from climbing them? We have these in NZ to stop possums from causing power outages.

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