11 Things We Know About the Dodo

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The first thing one must accept when trying to learn about the dodo is that we'll probably never know that much about the flightless bird, which died out over 300 years ago in one of the first—if not the first—man-made extinctions. Still, careful study of surviving documents and specimens, as well as a little science, have revealed a bit about the dodo. 

1. THE DODO LIVED ON MAURITIUS.

A map of the Mascarene Islands, circa 1780: Reunion (then Ile. Bourbon, left), Mauritius (then Ile. de France, center) and Rodrigues (right). Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Part of a chain of three islands east of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean, Mauritius was discovered by the Portuguese in 1507; they set up a base but soon abandoned the island. But it was the Dutch who named it, after Prince Maurice van Nassau, in 1598—which was also when they found the dodo. Vice Admiral Wybran van Warwijck described the bird in his journal: 

Blue parrots are very numerous there, as well as other birds; among which are a kind, conspicuous for their size, larger than our swans, with huge heads only half covered with skin as if clothed with a hood. These birds lack wings, in the place of which 3 or 4 blackish feathers protrude. The tail consists of a few soft incurved feathers, which are ash coloured.

In 1634, Sir Thomas Herbert (who had visited Mariutius in 1627) described the dodo in his book A Relation of Some Yeares Travaille into Afrique and the Greater Asia:

First here only ... is generated the Dodo … her body is round and fat, few weigh less than fifty pound. It is reputed more for wonder than for food, greasie stomackes may seeke after them, but to the delicate they are offensive and of no nourishment. Her visage darts forth melancholy, as sensible of Nature's injurie in framing so great a body to be guided with complementall wings, so small and impotent, that they serve only to prove her bird. The halfe of her head is naked seeming couered with a fine vaile, her bill is crooked downwards, in midst is the trill [nostril], from which part to the end tis a light green, mixed with pale yellow tincture; her eyes are small and like to Diamonds, round and rowling; her clothing downy feathers, her train three small plumes, short and inproportionable, her legs suiting her body, her pounces sharpe, her appetite strong and greedy. Stones and iron are digested, which description will better be conceived in her representation.

He drew the bird, too.

2. ITS MONIKER CAME FROM THE PORTUGUESE.

The Dutch called it walghvodel, or "disgusting bird," because of the toughness of its flesh. "The longer and oftener they were cooked, the less soft and more insipid eating they became. Nevertheless their belly and breast were of a pleasant flavour and easily masticated," van Warwijck wrote in 1598. But the name that stuck, according to Clara Pinto-Correia in her book Return of the Crazy Bird, was derived from the ancient Portuguese word dondo (the modern word is doido) meaning idiot or fool. Pinto-Correia also says that by the end of the 17th century, there were a staggering 78 words for the bird. It had a number of scientific names—Carl Linneaus tried to name it Didus ineptus, or "inept dodo," in 1766—but the one that stuck was Raphus cucullatus (Latin for "bustard" and "hooded," respectively), which was given to the dodo in 1760.

3. IT MAY HAVE BEEN MONOGAMOUS.

It was described as "loyal to its mate and dedicated to its chicks." They also may have lain only one egg at a time in ground nests. That slow reproduction (as well as the fact that the eggs made for easy meals for predators) spelled disaster for the species.

4. THOUGH PLACID AND UNAFRAID OF HUMANS, THE DODO WAS CAPABLE OF DEFENDING ITSELF.

In Crazy Bird, Pinto-Correia relates the slaughter of the dodos, which was occurring long before anyone settled at Mauritius; in one account, sailors killed as many as 25 birds to bring back to the ship. But there is one description of the birds fighting back: "One sailor wrote that if the men were not careful, the birds inflicted severe wounds upon their aggressors with their powerful beaks," Pinto-Correia writes.

5. DODOS WENT TO EUROPE.

No one knows for sure how many—Julian Pender Hume, an avian paleontologist at the Natural History Museum in London, estimates that four or five were shipped with only one or two arriving alive, while others estimate that as many as 14 or 17 birds may have made the trip. But there is evidence at least a few made it there alive. One may have been brought to Europe by Admiral Jacob Cornelius van Neck, who sent the bird to Prague and Hapsburg Rudolf II, monarch of Austria and King of Bohemia and Hungary, in 1600 (more on that in a bit).

Theologian and writer Sir Hamon L'Estrange saw one dodo, displayed as a public attraction, in London in 1683. He wrote:

It was kept in a chamber, and was a great fowle somewhat bigger than the largest Turkey Cock, and so legged and footed, but stouter and thicker and of a more erect shape, coloured before like the breast of a young cock fesan, and on the back a dunn or deare colour. The keeper called it a Dodo, and in the ende of a chymney in the chamber there lay a heape of large pebble stones, wherof hee gave it many in our sight, some as big as nutmegs, and the keeper told us she eats them (conducing to digestion).

6. THE DODO WAS ILLUSTRATED AS FAT AND AWKWARD, BUT IT (PROBABLY) WASN'T.

When we imagine a dodo, we often think of a depiction from one painting in particular—the one at the top of this post. It was created by Rudolf II's one-time court painter, Roelandt Savery, in 1626 (and gifted to the British Museum by George Edwards in 1759). According to Pinto-Correia, Savery left the court after Rudolf's death and afterward often painted the bird from memory, which probably led to inaccuracies. It's also not known if Savery painted a live bird or created his paintings from contemporary accounts and dead specimens.

At any rate, scientists believe the birds were probably drawn from overfed captive subjects or from overstuffed specimens; it's also possible that in the wild, the birds' weight fluctuated dramatically depending on the availability of food.

The first reconstruction of a dodo was put together in 1865 by Richard Owen at the Natural History Museum using fossilized bones and an outline of the bird from one of Savery's paintings. His reconstruction and a scientific description were published, but three years later, Owens realized he had been wrong. It was too late to change public perception, though. Modern evidence suggests that the dodo would have been more upright, with a thinner neck and breast—because flightless birds don't need large muscles in the breast.

7. THE LAST DODO WAS SEEN IN JULY 1681.

Englishman Benjamin Harry, first mate on the British vessel Berkeley Castle, was the last person to spot a dodo on Mauritius and write about it:

Now having a little respitt I will make a little descripti: of ye island first of its Producks and yns of itts parts—ffirst of winged and feathered ffowle ye less passant, are Dodos whose fflesh is very hard, a small sort of Geese reasona...

Sometime after that—just eight decades after the Dutch landed—the bird succumbed to exctinction brought on by hunting, habitat destruction, and the introduction of invasive species like rats and pigs.

8. THERE ARE NO COMPLETE SPECIMENS FROM A SINGLE BIRD.

The dodo skeletons you see at museums have been assembled from sub-fossilized remains. At one point, though, there was a complete specimen. The bird belonged to John Tradescant and was gifted to the Oxford University Natural History Museum in the 1680s. Today, only the head—which still has soft tissue—and the foot remain; the museum burned the rest of the bird on January 8, 1755 because of severe decay, unaware that it was the last complete specimen in the world.

9. AND MANY PEOPLE DIDN'T BELIEVE IT ACTUALLY EXISTED.

You can hardly blame naturalists living 150 years after the dodo's extinction for believing it was a creature made up by sailors. As Hugh Edwin Strickland and Alexander Melville wrote while making their case for the existence of the bird in The Dodo and Its Kindred, published in 1848:

So rapid and complete was their extinction that the vague descriptions given of them by early navigators were long regarded as fabulous or exaggerated, and these birds … became associated in the minds of many person with the Griffin and the Phoenix of mythological antiquity.

10. IT WAS BASICALLY A BIG PIGEON.

During its life and after its extinction, scientists couldn't make up their minds just what kind of bird the dodo was—they grouped it with chickens, vultures, eagles, penguins, or cranes. But a few scientists, including Johannes Theodor Reinhardt, Hugh Edwin Strickland, Alexander Gordon Melville, and Samuel Cabot, thought the bird more closely resembled young pigeons—and they were right. In 2007, biologist Beth Shapiro performed analysis on a DNA sample carefully extracted from the leg bone of the Oxford remains and found that the dodo is a distant relative of the pigeon.

11. IT HAD TWO COUSINS THAT ALSO WENT EXTINCT.

Wikimedia Commons

One was the solitaire (Pezophaps solitarius)—so named because it was rarely seen with other birds—a gray and brown flightless bird with a long neck, about the size of a swan, that lived on Rodrigues. It was wiped out by the 1760s. The other was the so-called "white dodo" of Réunion (Didus borbonicus, later called the Réunion Sacred Ibis,Threskiornis solitarius), a yellowish-white bird with black-tipped wings. In an account from 1614 (published in 1626), English sailor John Tatton described the bird as "a great fowl of the bigness of a Turkie, very fat, and so short-winged that they cannot fly, being white, and in a manner tame … In general these birds are in such abundance in these islands that ten sailors can amass in one day enough to feed fourty." At least a couple of the birds were shipped to Europe in 1685, but after that, there are no more accounts; in an 1801 survey of Réunion, none of the birds were found.

Buy Clara Pinto-Correia's book, Return of the Crazy Bird—an invaluable resource for this article—for more about the dodo.

12 Animals Named After the Noises They Make

A bobolink, said to have been named for the call it makes
A bobolink, said to have been named for the call it makes
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If you were asked to name an onomatopoeic word, then you’d probably come up with something like boom, boing, whizz, smash, or tick-tock. They’re all perfectly good examples, of course, but onomatopoeia is actually responsible for a lot more words than you might think. For instance, etymologists believe that pebble might have been coined to imitate the sound of flowing water. Laugh might have been invented to sound like, well, a laugh. Owl, crow, and raven are all descended from Old English words (ule, crawe, hræfn) that were meant to imitate the owl’s hoot and the crow’s and raven’s squawks. And the 12 names listed here are all meant to represent the bizarre whoops, chips, peeps and wows made by the animals they describe.

1. AI

An ai in Venezuela
Fernando Flores, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.0

As well as being a contender for the world’s shortest animal name, ai (which should be pronounced “ah-ee") is another name for a three-toed sloth, especially the pale-throated sloth, found in the far northeast corner of South America. Although sloths are generally fairly docile, the name ai is apparently meant to resemble the high-pitched cry they can make when they’re agitated or alarmed.

2. BOBOLINK

Bobolinks can produce very long and surprisingly complex songs, but their usual go-to noise is a brief four-note call that’s commonly said to sound like someone saying “Bob-o-Lincoln.” The name Bob-o-Lincoln eventually was shortened to bobolink in the 1800s.

3. CHIPMUNK

One theory claims that the name chipmunk is an English interpretation of a native Ojibwe word, ajidamoo, meaning something like “red squirrel.” But because chipmunks were originally known as “chipping squirrels” in English, it seems more likely that the name is actually an English invention, in which case it’s probably meant to describe their short “chipping” call.

4. CHOWCHILLA

A chowchilla
Seabamirum, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

The chowchilla is type of logrunner, a small thrush-like bird, that’s native to Queensland, Australia. For a bird not much larger than a robin, the chowchilla has a particularly noisy call that to early European colonists and explorers apparently sounded like “chow-chilla-chow-chow.” The chowchilla was also once known as the “auctioneer bird,” apparently because (with a bit of imagination) its song sounds like an auctioneer's incessant chattering.

5. CHUCK-WILL’S-WIDOW

A cousin of the better-known whippoorwill, the chuck-will’s-widow is another species of nightjar (a family of nocturnal birds related to swifts and martins) native to the southern United States and much of Central America. Dozens of different species of nightjar are found all over the world, and they all share incredible camouflaged plumage and strange whooping calls—so if the “whippoorwill” makes a noise that sounds like poor Will is about to be whipped, then the “chuck-will’s-widow” makes a sound like poor Will’s widow is about to be chucked.

6. GANG-GANG

A gang-gang cockatoo
iStock.com/JohnCarnemolla

The peculiar croaking noise made by the gang-gang cockatoo of southeast Australia has been likened to everything from a creaking wooden door to a cork being pulled from a wine bottle. However you might want to describe it, the onomatopoeic name gang-gang was adopted into English from a Wiradhuri name that was supposed to imitate it.

7. HOOPOE

Hoopoe bird on a branch
iStock.com/shurub

The hoopoe is a striking-looking songbird whose name is meant to imitate its strange whooping call. Their bizarre appearance has also helped make them the frequent subject of myths and folktales over time: the Ancient Egyptians worshipped them and drew pictures of them inside the pyramids; the Romans believed that they were filthy creatures because they fed on dung and frequently nested in graveyards; and at least one old European legend claims that the younger birds look after the older ones in their old age, restoring their youth by plucking out dying feathers and licking blindness from their eyes.

8. KATYDID

A katydid on a purple flower
iStock.com/blindsquirrelphoto

Katydids make their loud and often three-syllable “ka-ty-did” call by rubbing their forewings together. They hear each other, incidentally, with ears located on their front legs. There are more than 6000 species in the katydid family, found on every continent except Antarctica.

9. MACAQUE

The name macaque was borrowed into English via French in the late 17th century, but it’s thought to originally derive from an old Bantu name, kaku, for any of the numerous monkey species found in West Africa. The name kaku is in turn supposed to be imitative of a monkey call, and it’s from the plural form of kaku—namely makaku in Bantu—that the word macaque eventually evolved.

10. PEEWIT

A type of plover with characteristic green plumage and a long curled crest, the northern lapwing has a number of nicknames in English—including the peewit, the swipe, the peepsweep, the teewhit, and the teeack—every one of which is supposed to emulate its noisy alarm call. The common name lapwing, incidentally, refers to the bird’s tactic of feigning a broken wing in order to distract predators from their nest when they feel threatened.

11. PIET-MY-VROU

Piet-my-vrou is another name for the red-chested cuckoo, a species of cuckoo found across much of sub-Saharan Africa. Cuckoos are well known for their instantly recognizable call, and it’s the loud three-note descending call of the piet-my-vrou (which literally means “Pete my wife” in Afrikaans) that gives it its name.

12. WOW-WOW

A wow-wow, or agile gibbon

Gibbons are famous for their lengthy and surprisingly complex songs, and the whooping or “wowing” call of the wow-wow or wawa—a local Indonesian name for either the agile gibbon or the silvery gibbon—is no exception. Sadly both species are now listed as endangered, due to their localized distribution and on-going habitat destruction.

This story first ran in 2014.

15 Squirrel Facts for Squirrel Appreciation Day

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iStock

Even if you live in a big city, you probably see wildlife on a regular basis. Namely, you're sure to run into a lot of squirrels, even in the densest urban areas. And if you happen to live on a college campus, well, you're probably overrun with them. While some people might view them as adorable, others see them as persistent pests bent on chewing on and nesting in everything in sight. But in honor of National Squirrel Appreciation Day, here are 15 reasons you should appreciate the savvy, amazing, bushy-tailed critters.

1. They can jump really, really far.

A flying squirrel soars through the air
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In one study [PDF] of the tree-dwelling plantain squirrels that roam the campus of the National University of Singapore, squirrels were observed jumping almost 10 feet at a stretch. In another study with the eastern ground squirrel, one researcher observed a squirrel jumping more than 8 feet between a tree stump and a feeding platform, propelling itself 10 times the length of its body. Flying squirrels, obviously, can traverse much farther distances midair—the northern flying squirrel, for instance, can glide up to 295 feet [PDF].

2. They're very organized ...

A squirrel digs in a grassy field filled with fallen leaves.
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In fact, they may be more organized than you are. A 2017 study found that eastern fox squirrels living on UC Berkeley's campus cache their nuts according to type. When given a mixture of walnuts, pecans, almonds, and hazelnuts, the squirrels took the time to hide each type of nut in a specific place. This method of "spatial chunking" may help them remember where the nuts are when they go to retrieve them later. Though the study wasn't able to determine this for sure, the study's results suggested that the squirrels may have been organizing their caches by even more subtle categories, like the size of the nuts.

3. ... But their forgetfulness helps trees grow.

Looking up a tree trunk at a squirrel climbing down
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Tree squirrels are one of the most important animals around when it comes to planting forests. Though they may be careful about where they bury their acorns and other nuts, they still forget about quite a few of their caches (or at least neglect to retrieve them). When they do, those acorns often sprout, resulting in more trees—and eventually, yet more acorns for the squirrels.

4. They help truffles thrive.

A man holds a truffle up for the camera.
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The squirrel digestive system also plays an important role in the survival of truffles. While above-ground mushrooms can spread their spores through the air, truffles grow below ground. Instead of relying on the air, they depend on hungry animals like squirrels to spread their spores to host plants elsewhere. The northern flying squirrel, found in forests across North America, depends largely on the buried fungi to make up its diet, and plays a major role in truffle propagation. The squirrels poop out the spores unharmed on the forest floor, allowing the fungi to take hold and form a symbiotic relationship with the tree roots it's dropped near.

5. They're one of the few mammals that can sprint down a tree head-first.

A squirrel stands on the knot of a tree trunk looking down at the ground.
iStock

You may not be too impressed when you see a squirrel running down a tree, but they're actually accomplishing a major feat. Most animals can't climb vertically down head-first, but squirrel's back ankles can rotate 180°, turning their paws all the way around to grip the tree trunk as they descend.

6. Several towns compete for the title of "Home of the White Squirrel."

A white squirrel in Olney, Illinois stands on its hind legs.
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Squirrels are a more popular town mascot than you might think. Surprisingly, more than one town wants to be known as the "home of the white squirrel," including Kenton, Tennessee; Marionville, Missouri; the Canadian city of Exeter, Ontario; and Brevard, North Carolina, the location of the annual White Squirrel Festival. But Olney, Illinois may be the most intense about its high population of albino squirrels. There is a $750 fine for killing the all-white animals, and they have the legal right-of-way on roads. There's an official city count of the squirrels each year, and in 1997, realizing that local cats posed a threat to the beloved rodent residents, the city council banned residents from letting their cats run loose outdoors. In 2002, the city held a 100-Year White Squirrel Celebration, erecting a monument and holding a "squirrel blessing" by a priest. Police officers wore special squirrel-themed patches for the event.

7. They could aid in stroke research.

An illustration of different regions of the brain lighting up in blue
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Ground squirrels hibernate in the winter, and the way their brains function while they do may help scientists develop a new drug that can limit the brain damage caused by strokes. When ground squirrels hibernate, their core body temperature drops dramatically—in the case of the arctic ground squirrel, to as low as 26.7°F, possibly the lowest body temperature of any mammal on Earth. During this extra-cold hibernation, a squirrel's brain undergoes cellular changes that help its brain deal with reduced blood flow. Researchers are currently trying to develop a drug that could mimic that process in the human brain, preventing brain cells from dying when blood flow to the brain is cut off during a stroke.

8. Their fur may have spread leprosy in the Middle Ages.

A woman in a fur vest with a hood faces away from the camera and stares out over the water.
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If you always warn your friends not to pet or feed squirrels because they can spread disease, put this story in your back pocket for later: They may have helped leprosy spread from Scandinavia to the UK in the 9th century. Research published in 2017 found a strain of leprosy similar to a modern variant found in squirrels in southern England in the skull of a woman who lived in England sometime between 885 and 1015 CE. The scientists suggest that the leprosy may have arrived along with Viking squirrel pelts. "It is possible that this strain of leprosy was proliferated in the South East of England by contact with highly prized squirrel pelt and meat, which was traded by the Vikings at the time this woman was alive," one of the authors told The Guardian. That may not be the most uplifting reason to appreciate squirrels, but it's hard not to admire their influence!

9. They're more powerful than hackers.

A squirrel runs across a power line.
Frederic J. Brown, AFP/Getty Images

While energy companies may worry about hackers disrupting the power grid, squirrels are actually far more powerful than cyber-whizzes when it comes to sabotaging our electricity supply. A website called Cyber Squirrel 1 documents every public record of squirrels and other animals disrupting power services dating back to 1987. It has counted more than 1100 squirrel-related outages across the world for that time period, which is no doubt a vast underestimate. In a 2016 survey of public power utilities, wildlife was the most common cause of power outages, and for most power companies, that tends to mean squirrels.

10. They can heat up their tails to ward off predators.

A ground squirrel sits with its mouth open.
David McNew, Getty Images

California ground squirrels have an interesting way of scaring off rattlesnakes. Like cats, their tails puff up when they go on the defense. A squirrel will wave its tail at a rattlesnake to convince the snake that it's a formidable opponent. Surprisingly, they whip their tails at their foes whether it's light or dark outside. Squirrels can control the blood flow to their tails to cool down or keep warm, and they use this to their advantage in a fight, pumping blood into their tails. Even if the rattlesnakes can't see the bushy tails, researchers found in 2007, they can sense the heat coming off them.

11. They help scientists determine whether a forest is healthy.

A squirrel runs down a tree trunk toward a pile of leaves.
iStock

Researchers look at tree squirrel populations to measure just how well a forest ecosystem is faring. Because they depend on their forest habitats for seeds, nesting sites, and food storage, the presence and demographics of tree squirrels in an area is a good bellwether for the health of a mature forest. Studying changes in squirrel populations can help experts determine the environmental impact of logging, fires, and other events that alter forest habitats [PDF].

12. They can lie.

A squirrel with a bushy tail stands on its hind legs.
iStock

Gray squirrels know how to deceive. They can engage in what's called "tactical deception," a behavior previously only seen in primates, as a study in 2008 found. When they think they're being watched by someone looking to pilfer their cache of food, the researchers discovered, they will pretend to dig a hole as if burying their acorn or nut, but tuck their snack into their mouth and go bury it elsewhere.

13. They used to be America's most popular pet.

A man in a hat kisses a squirrel on the White House grounds
Harris & Ewing, Library of Congress // Public Domain

Though some states currently ban (or require permits for) keeping squirrels as pets, it was once commonplace. Warren G. Harding kept a squirrel named Pete who would sometimes show up to White House meetings and briefings, where members of Harding's cabinet would bring him nuts. But keeping a squirrel around wasn't just for world leaders—the rodent was the most popular pet in the country, according to Atlas Obscura. From the 1700s onwards, squirrels were a major fixture in the American pet landscape and were sold in pet shops. Despite Harding's love of Pete, by the time he lived in the White House in the 1920s, squirrel ownership was already on the wane, in part due to the rise of exotic animal laws.

14. The mere sight of just one squirrel could once attract a crowd.

A historical photo of nurses leaning down to feed a black squirrel
Library of Congress // Public Domain

The American cities of the 1800s weren't great places to catch a glimpse of wildlife, squirrels included. In fact, the animals were so rare that in the summer of 1856, when a gray squirrel escaped from its cage inside a downtown New York apartment building (where it was surely living as someone's pet), it merited a write-up in The New York Times. According to the paper, several hundred people gathered to gawk at the tree where the squirrel took refuge and try to coax the rodent down. In the end, a police officer had to force the crowd to disperse. The paper did not document what happened to the poor squirrel.

15. In the 19th century, they were tasked with teaching compassion.

A boy doing homework with a squirrel on the table.
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

In the mid-1800s, seeking to return a little bit of nature to concrete jungles, cities began re-introducing squirrels to their urban parks. Squirrels provided a rare opportunity for city slickers to see wildlife, but they were also seen as a sort of moral compass for young boys. Observing and feeding urban squirrels was seen as a way to steer boys away from their "tendency toward cruelty," according to University of Pennsylvania historian Etienne Benson [PDF]. Boy Scouts founder Ernest Thompson Seton argued in a 1914 article that cities should introduce "missionary squirrels" to cities so that boys could befriend them. He and other advocates of urban squirrels "saw [them] as opportunities for boys to establish trusting, sympathetic, and paternalistic relationships with animal others," Benson writes.

But young boys weren't the only ones that were thought to benefit from a little squirrel-feeding time. When the animals were first reintroduced to parks in the 19th century, feeding squirrels was considered an act of charity—one accessible even to those people who didn't have the means of showing charity in other realms. "Because of the presence of urban squirrels, even the least powerful members of human society could demonstrate the virtue of charity and display their own moral worth," Benson writes. "Gray squirrels helped reshape the American urban park into a site for the performance of charity and compassion for the weak." Even if you were too poor to provide any sort of charity for someone else, you could at least give back to the squirrels.

Bonus: They used to hate tax season, too.

A colored lithograph shows men and dogs hunting squirrels in a forest.
Currier and Ives, Library of Congress // Public Domain

Though notably absent from big cities, much of the U.S. was once overrun by squirrels. The large population of gray squirrels in early Ohio caused such widespread crop destruction that people were encouraged—nay, required—to hunt them. In 1807, the Ohio General Assembly demanded that citizens not just pay their regular taxes, but add a few squirrel carcasses on top. According to the Ohio History Connection, taxpayers had to submit a minimum of 10 squirrel scalps to the town clerk each year. Tennessee had similar laws, though that state would let people pay in dead crows if they couldn't rustle up enough squirrels.

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