We’ve killed them for food and sport, used their fur for warmth, taken them as pets, and even fed them in their wild state from our backyards and public parks. To some they are neighborhood cut ups always good for a laugh, while to others they are a nuisance, little more than vandals ravaging the likes of bird feeders and flower beds.
Gray and fox squirrels, the two most common species of squirrel in Illinois, were here long before the arrival of the first American settlers. Although tallgrass prairie once blanketed vast stretches of Central Illinois, there were still plenty of wooded tracts and groves conducive to tree-dependent squirrels. Based on original federal land surveys from the early 1820s, for example, timber covered about 10.5 percent of what would become McLean County.
The gray squirrel inhabited the larger forested belts such as the “Mackinaw Timber” that traced the eponymous river and its larger tributaries. “Grays” prefer sizable wooded tracts with an interlaced canopy of nut-bearing trees and a brushy understory. As woodlands in Central Illinois fell to the Euro-American ax and plow or were grazed by livestock, localized gray squirrel populations declined or disappeared altogether. It’s estimated that the settlement and subsequent development of Illinois reduced the statewide population of gray squirrels in the “wild” (that is, in non-urban areas) by as much as 75 percent.
On the other hand the fox squirrel, larger than the gray and with a distinctive orange-red underside, was better suited to face the onslaught of settlement. Fox squirrels were found along the edges of the larger timbered tracts and in the smaller wooded groves, preferring a more open understory than the grays. Thus the thinning out of Illinois woodlands by axe and bovine increased the available habitat for the fox squirrel.
Regardless, the establishment of villages, towns and cities eventually meant tree-dotted public parks and leafy residential neighborhoods that proved attractive to both gray and fox squirrels. Both species made adept use of built environments offering new modes of provisioning (peanut-bearing humans), transportation (utility wires and roofing) and on occasion, housing (soffits, gutters and attics).
Today most Illinois communities are home to gray or fox squirrels exclusively, as the two “cousins” rarely mix company. Bloomington-Normal, for instance, has fox squirrels. Why this is the case may have something to do with the composition of original and surviving local squirrel populations, and in some instances to local practices, from anti-cruelty ordinances to reintroduction programs. Champaign-Urbana’s gray squirrel population, to cite one example, can be traced to a reintroduction effort dating back to 1901.
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There are more than a few pioneer stories recounting squirrels migrating in groups by the thousands. Some of these stories take leave of good-natured hyperbole in favor of the sheer fantastical, such as the supposed great migration of squirrels across the Ohio River from Kentucky to Illinois during the fall of 1834. The squirrels “made their way northward through Gallatin and White counties (in southern Illinois), overrunning the country and doing immense damage to the corn crops,” states a White County history from 1883. “They were killed in immense numbers by the citizens, especially as they crossed the rivers and were exhausted by the labor of swimming.”
Great migrations or not, we do know that squirrel was part of the frontier diet, prepared as it was in a variety of ways — including baked, fried, roasted and stewed. Brunswick stew, a Southern dish that often included lima beans, okra, corn and wild game ranging from squirrel to opossum, was a likely antecedent to Southern Illinois chowder, which traditionally included squirrel. Both Brunswick stew and Southern Illinois “chowder” (actually a thick soup or stew) were often cooked in large kettles and left to simmer for hours at a time.
Another name for this communal stew or chowder was burgoo, and this tradition survives in burgoo festivals in Illinois communities such as Utica in LaSalle County and Franklin in Morgan County, the latter the self-proclaimed “Burgoo Capital of the World.” Truth be told, state law now prohibits the selling of game in such a manner, meaning festival-bought burgoo is, alas, squirrel-free burgoo.
In late October 1871, The Pantagraph reported W.B. Carlock visited his father Abraham’s home place in White Oak Township and while there “took the old musket and slew seventeen squirrels in a few hours.” Talk of such proficiency, it was then said, led to mouth-watering dreams of squirrel pot pie.
Even after the Civil War, when Illinois settled down into respectable statehood, squirrel and other game were still considered acceptable holiday table fare. “The provision market is literally laden with good things for Christmas,” announced The Pantagraph on Dec. 21, 1878. “Plump quails are selling at retail at $1 per dozen; prairie chickens, at $4 per dozen, or 35 cents each; rabbits, three and four for 25 cents; squirrels, $1.50 per dozen.”
Nearly two decades later squirrel remained a welcome “victual” on Central Illinois dinner tables. “Nimrods (hunters) report squirrels very plentiful in the groves in this vicinity,” noted The Pantagraph on June 8, 1896. “The young ones are about half grown, and for a delicious, wholesome broil a young squirrel cannot be excelled.”