Take a stroll through a Minneapolis park and you’ll almost certainly encounter bold, bushy-tailed gray squirrels. They may beg for snacks or scrape up buried nuts, seemingly oblivious to people around them.
But how did these opportunistic urbanites become such a fixture of our city parks? Their origin story reveals some surprising history behind Minneapolis’ squirrel population.
It turns out the ubiquitous gray squirrel was brought here intentionally over a century ago by an influential park leader.
The goal was to reduce the red squirrel population, which was disliked at the time. The result was a wholesale change to the parks’ wildlife that we now take for granted.
When Did Gray Squirrels Arrive in Minneapolis?
In the early 1900s, Minneapolis parks like Loring Park were home to red squirrels. But park superintendent Theodore Wirth thought the red squirrels were pests.
Wirth saw the gray squirrels as friendlier and more attractive than the aggressive red squirrels. According to Minneapolis Park History Wirth imported grey squirrels from Kanas in 1909.
He also hired someone to shoot the red squirrels in Loring Park because they were eating songbird eggs. The Minneapolis Tribune described it in the headline “22-Caliber Bullet Right in the Head for his”. L.C. Shelly used his rifle in the park and called it the “slaughter of the tail-in-air tribe. After Loring Park they want
By 1919, Wirth declared the introduction a success, noting the grays had spread across the park system and city.
What Were the Perceived Differences Between Red and Gray Squirrels?
At the time, gray squirrels were seen as tamer, less aggressive, and fonder of humans compared to feisty red squirrels. Red squirrels vigorously defend their territories while grays are more relaxed.
Reds mainly eat pine and spruce seeds while grays have diverse diets and don’t hesitate to take food from humans.
However, modern experts note gray squirrels also eat baby birds, raid feeders, and damage gardens – not as angelic as once thought.
The Mankato Free Press even corroborated that grey squirrels have been known to destroy birds’ eggs when Minneapolis Parks asked the town of Mankato if they had a red squill population.
How Did Gray Squirrels Become Urban Squirrels?
Gray squirrels were first introduced to Eastern U.S. cities like Philadelphia and Boston in the mid-1800s to add natural beauty to parks.
After early populations died out, a successful introduction to New York’s Central Park in the 1870s paved the way for more cities.
Feeding the squirrels was promoted as teaching children kindness to animals. Their adaptability made them “living proof” that nature enhances urban life.
Minneapolis was part of this national trend of reshaping city nature.
What Is Their Status Today?
The gray squirrel’s introduction succeeded beyond Wirth’s dreams. They multiplied across Minneapolis, becoming pampered “cream puff” squirrels compared to their wilder ancestors.
While appreciated by many, they also face complaints about damage and nesting in buildings. Their origin story shows how efforts to plan nature in cities can have lasting impacts, both good and bad.
The gray urban squirrel is likely here to stay as a signature Minneapolis Park resident.