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Eastern Gray Squirrels Swimming

e-gray squirrel swimming by Erin 2_H6A2563 copy (002)Imagine coming upon a stick floating in a large pond only to discover the “stick” had a head and tail and was making a beeline for the shore.  The fact that an Eastern Gray Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) had paddled half a mile to get from one shore to the opposite shore of a pond shouldn’t have come as such a surprise, as this rodent has a long history of migratory swimming behavior, but it’s such an incongruous and unexpected event that it made my companion and me initially question our eyesight and then laugh out loud.

Historical reports suggest there have been many massive Eastern Gray Squirrel migrations in the United States, beginning in 1749 in Pennsylvania.   Records show the state paid three cents for each squirrel killed; over 640,000 squirrels were turned in for bounty.  One migration from Wisconsin in 1842 lasted four weeks and involved a half billion squirrels. Because of the numerous squirrel migrations, John James Audubon was erroneously convinced that the squirrels on the move were a separate species from the Eastern Gray Squirrel and gave them the scientific name Sciurus migratorius. (This proved to be inaccurate.)

During the 1800’s, thousands of squirrels would periodically move en masse across roads, fields and forests, and swim across lakes and rivers (including the Mississippi and Connecticut Rivers) in an effort to disperse. The consensus is that these mass movements were a response to local food conditions. They occurred mostly during the month of September following a year in which there was a large production of food (acorns).

The most recent mass migration of Eastern Gray Squirrels in eastern U.S. occurred in 1968, when a bumper crop of acorns in 1967 was followed with a corresponding bumper crop of young squirrels in 1968. By fall, as the first litter of the year left the nest, there was a severe shortage of food. As a result, massive numbers of acorn-eating squirrels dispersed in search of food.

One Eastern Gray Squirrel swimming across a New Hampshire pond does not a migration make, but it might not be a bad idea to keep an eye out for excessive numbers of paddling squirrels and/or road-killed rodents come September. (Photo by Erin Donahue)

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36 responses

  1. Alice Pratt

    Their antics are comical. I feel badly for the squirrels that don’t return to their nest, because they don’t cross the road more carefully. But…I really don’t like their voracious appetites….so much birdseed & chomping on rogue sunflowers that have come up in pots.

    August 20, 2018 at 7:26 am

  2. Anne Marie Meegan

    There’s an account of mass squirrel migration in the journals of Lewis and Clark!

    August 20, 2018 at 7:28 am

  3. Carolyn Parrott

    I am at my wit’s end about what to do with the influx of squirrels in my yard–and now in my house! Yes, this summer they bit through our screens to get to food on the counter; they have learned to use the cat door. Is there no end to their ingenuity? A Buddhist, I cannot bring myself to kill them, much as I would like to. What it really translates to is not feeding my wonderful birds sunflower seeds………Aargh. Help!

    August 20, 2018 at 8:08 am

    • Alice Pratt

      You know they don’t like cayenne pepper? Sprinkle on bird seed…the birds don’t seem to taste it. Last year we had about 50 peaches…a few years before only 2…on a “spit pit” peach tree in an old compost pile…all the peaches disappeared…most likely squirrels..they didn’t leave one for us…..I bought a pepper spray to spray on peach branches this year…didn’t use,it…too close to our bee hives…we only got 2 peaches…I’m about to spray the sheperds hook, that the bird feeder is hanging on, with pepper spray…I know squirrels need to eat…but…unlimited?

      August 20, 2018 at 8:38 am

    • There are ways to out wit squirrels and other “varmints” (they are “varmints” when they are doing something we don’t like/want). There are squirrel proof feeders and “hardware cloth” wire to seal up any and all openings or weak spots around the house, also technologies for getting “varmints” out of the house (excluder “traps”). You can do some investigating/research for details or help. Also forming better habits on (not) leaveng food around (or smelly garbage etc.)..

      August 20, 2018 at 10:44 am

    • Please see below for some (hopefully) helpful ideas / solutions to your squirrel woes for coexisting with squirrels……

      August 20, 2018 at 10:51 am

    • If you have a tall tree with a long branch extending near your window, get a slingshot and send a strong string/thin rope up over the branch. (Attach rock so it comes down.) Hang a platform feeder where you can still see the birds but high enough and out from the tree enough that squirrels can’t reach. I think I saw this in the book “Squirrel Wars.” Not sure. It had the dimensions–I believe 9 feet from the tree trunk and 7 feet up from ground they won’t trespass. It has worked really well for me; in winter you need to adjust with the snow. And keep anything on the ground away that they can hop on and get to the feeder, like a ladder against the house or a birdbath.

      August 30, 2018 at 1:48 pm

    • Catherine Fisher

      Hi Carolyn,
      This year everyone’s complaining about grey squirrels. Folks in Mass. and NH, who have never had problems with squirrels getting at their hummingbird feeders have had to find ways to keep the squirrels from guzzling down the sugar water. Reports of squirrels stripping fruit trees of hard, unripe fruit have been coming in all summer. I live in SE NH and in the last two to three weeks, the reports of dead squirrels on various highways has been staggering. Near my home on Rt. 125 scores of squirrel carcasses litter the road. One person counted 213 dead squirrels on a stretch of highway from Durham to Plymouth. Wildlife biologists say they’ve never seen so many dead squirrels. Part of this is attributed to a population boom following a big acorn crop. With the increase in squirrel numbers, food becomes harder to locate and squirrels take desperate measures – crossing busy highways, breaking into homes, eating stone-hard unripe peaches…..

      September 6, 2018 at 8:57 pm

  4. I’ve seen a couple of red squirrels swimming this year.

    August 20, 2018 at 8:10 am

  5. bethany

    I saw a video of a squirrel crossing the Connecticut River just this past week. The filmer was at the Putney/Dummerston boat landing.

    August 20, 2018 at 8:50 am

  6. Bea

    This is very interesting, but please do not say that anything made a friend & I laugh! There is still a place in this world for ‘me’.

    August 20, 2018 at 9:13 am

    • I am sure you’re grammatically correct! For some reason it didn’t sound right to me…probably too caught up in the sighting to pay close attention to my grammar!

      August 20, 2018 at 9:25 am

  7. Patty

    A friend of mine saw a squirrel swimming across Wrightsville Reservoir in Middlesex earlier this summer.

    August 20, 2018 at 9:17 am

  8. Kelly Cutchin

    So interesting! Just yesterday I was driving down to the Portland area (from Auburn) and exclaimed over the large number of squirrel road kill I saw. I stopped counting after about 10. Always sad to see roadkill, but it is nice to have something of an explanation for the unusually high numbers. Thank you, as always.

    August 20, 2018 at 9:49 am

  9. Sue Wetmore

    I once saw a gray squirrel swimming across Silver Lake here in Salisbury .
    Thought it was going to be a mink but was also surprised.

    August 20, 2018 at 10:08 am

  10. Ann M Creaven

    Saw a squirrel swimming across the Comerford Dam pond a number of years ago. A watching eagle swooped down to get it but veered off when it became aware of me.

    August 20, 2018 at 10:24 am

  11. Sounds like something (mass migration) indicitive of an ecology badly out of balance… not surprising….I have come across a swimming chipmunk or two as well!

    August 20, 2018 at 10:34 am

  12. judilindsey


    Always something crazy and fascinating. Thanks!



    August 20, 2018 at 10:40 am

  13. Warner Historical

    Wow – absolutely fascinating. I had no idea.


    August 20, 2018 at 11:42 am

  14. Inge Ackermann

    Dear Mary,
    An interesting report on the gray squirrel, but make that “ it made
    my companion and me” rather than “and I”.

    A devoted follower and crazy grammarian of the old school….

    August 20, 2018 at 11:44 am

  15. Nancy Picthall-French

    We live on Pillsbury Lake in Webster, NH, and I’ve seen red squirrels swimming from one side of the lake to the other. I will admit I was shocked the first time I saw that.

    August 20, 2018 at 12:55 pm

  16. Marty Harris

    I once watched a woodchuck swim with ease across our pond.

    August 20, 2018 at 1:21 pm

  17. Sally

    I also loved hearing about the squirrel swimmers and migratory.
    A good way to test your grammar in instances like this one is to try out the phrase by removing the other pronoun and say – it made I laugh. It immediately doesn’t sound right.

    August 20, 2018 at 2:35 pm

    • Thank you, Sally. I know this as well as I know my own name, but somehow slipped up today!

      August 20, 2018 at 5:44 pm

  18. Kathy Schillemat

    I have already noted the abundance of gray squirrels this year. Every drive in my little town includes sightings of at least five squirrels, sometimes two or three in one area at a time.

    August 21, 2018 at 12:35 pm

  19. Johanna Vienneau

    In July I saw a chipmunk swimming across Purity Pond in Madison, NH. I followed it until it got to shore. It took two attempts to get up the embankment. It looked bedraggled and tired. I have a photo of it swimming but do not see how to attach it. Thank you for the information and history. There certainly was a huge mast crop of both beech and oak this year. And I noted that there seemed to be many more gray squirrels dead on the road early this summer. Also, I have two friends that have seen swimming squirrels. The most recent one survived an eagle diving for it 5 times!

    August 22, 2018 at 7:00 am

    • Wow! I would love to see your photo – WordPress doesn’t allow them to be posted, but if you were willing to email it to me at I would be very grateful. Wonderful sighting!

      August 22, 2018 at 7:58 am

  20. Hivetender

    In the past three weeks 28 gray squirrels seam across the lake, all same direction-East. Have only seen 5 do this in 27 years.

    September 5, 2018 at 12:07 pm

    • Wow! To what lake are you referring? Fascinating!

      September 5, 2018 at 5:42 pm

      • Hivetender

        Nottingham lake in Nottingham and I have now seen 29 swimming. some are even diving from up very high. witnessed 11 drop from up high and then swim to the other side. not one swam towards my house…just away across the lake.

        September 6, 2018 at 7:29 am

  21. Marnie Cobbs

    And I saw my third for the summer yesterday: gray squirrel swimming the Saco River in Conway, one in Chase Pond in Albany, and one crossing from an island in Sebago Lake to the north shore!

    September 14, 2018 at 7:29 am

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