Wars, Squirrels, and the Making of Suburban Los Angeles

My walk south on Clark Avenue used to pass a section bordered on both sides of the street by Italian pines (Pinus pinea), which always looked to me like templates for the fluted Ionic columns that front Greek temples. The pines were more than 40 years old when most of them were taken down by the city. They had grown so large. A few -- four or five -- still remain in Mayfair Park.

The pines, like everything in the park, are non-native, a deliberate transplant from someone's memories to the indifferent farmland that had been Lakewood from the beginning of the 19th century until the making of my suburb. When the houses along Clark Avenue were built in 1950, each one had a street tree planted in front it. None of these was native. When the park was developed in the mid-1950s, it was landscaped as if the climate history of Southern California never happened.

We're reminded forcefully in Lakewood in this year of drought, that history does matter.

The pines in Mayfair Park will persist, as will another adaptable transplant. About ten years ago, I began to encounter an occasional fox squirrel (Sciurus niger) on my walk to city hall. The opportunistic fox squirrels are the most recent of at least 22 non-native mammals now making Southern California their home.

The squirrels joined possums (the Virginia opossum, Didelphis virginiana) as sojourners in my neighborhood, along with house sparrows (Passer domesticus) and European starlings (Sturnus vulgaris). Even the garden snails (Cornu aspersum) that traverse the sidewalks in spring were invited here.

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The snails came to California in the 1850s, food for nostalgic Frenchmen and Spaniards. Sparrows and starlings were set free by misguided bird fanciers back East who wanted American skies to look more English. (Crows brought themselves.) Possums, it is said, arrived as another food animal for immigrants with a taste for wild meat. Fox squirrels followed possums from forest to table and back again as more arrivals settled in Southern California after the turn of the 20th century.

The fox squirrel is native to the eastern half of the continent, and a subspecies is common along the branches of the Mississippi Valley between Illinois and Tennessee.

Immigrants to Los Angeles came from these borderlands, tens of thousands of them from the end of the 19th century through the 1950s. Fox squirrels, it is generally believed, arrived with aging Civil War veterans at the Sawtelle Veterans Home at the edge of what is now Westwood Village in 1904. Whether to animate the landscape or make squirrel stew, the veterans set fox squirrels loose on the grounds of the home.

The squirrels that escaped the veterans' stew pots were in the walnut orchard north of the grounds soon after. They were in Santa Monica shortly after that. By 1910, the squirrels were in San Pedro, a distance of 25 miles. By the 1930s, they were in Ventura, almost 50 miles away. In 2004, they were in Claremont.

Bringing squirrels to California became illegal in 1933, and even relocation of squirrels is now prohibited. But anxieties about ecological disruption didn't stop the deliberate introduction of fox squirrels into Balboa Park in San Diego in 1920, onto the campus of UC Berkeley in 1926, and to Costa Mesa and the Palos Verdes Peninsula in the late 1990s. Distraught gardeners still trap and illegally relocate squirrels to parks and golf courses with the conviction that the squirrels will have a good home there.

Studies in 2004 suggested fox squirrels were disinterested in the suburban flatlands of the southeast county. But at least some squirrel pioneers -- perhaps brought to Long Beach by homesick Iowans working in defense plants in the 1940s -- made their way to the grounds of Long Beach City College and from there to Lakewood parks. Later, the squirrels and I would encounter each other along Clark Avenue among the pines that lined the street.

Surveys are underway now to give a more detailed picture of where the fox squirrels are going.

Residents of southeast Los Angeles County have become used to this unexpected wilding. The fox squirrel shares with raccoons, possums, and skunks a tolerance for human-managed landscapes, an eclectic diet, and a certain wanderlust. My neighbors and I in Lakewood can relate.

Like possums, fox squirrels use overhead utility lines to travel outside their home range, relatively safe from cats, dogs, and the cars that are their primary sources of mortality. Oddly, that brings more nature into older, working-class suburbs than newer, affluent ones where utilities are almost always undergrounded.

Our fellow suburban transplants, the fox squirrels are suffering from the drought with us. The acorns, eucalyptus buds, and pine nuts that form most of their diet are dependent on rainfall and, in parks like Mayfair, on the regularity of irrigation. The squirrels also are subject to periodic plagues of mange caused by mites, debilitating both suburban fox squirrels and the native gray squirrels (Sciurus griseus anthionyi) of the foothills. The stresses during drought years may be an explanation.

The attention paid to fox squirrels -- which isn't much -- is focused on their displacement of native gray squirrels. As the oak groves of the county's interior valleys were turned into suburban neighborhoods, fox squirrels filled a niche that was unappealing to the native squirrels. But the prolific fox squirrels have also begun to overlap the foothill slopes and lower mountain elevations that were historically only gray squirrel territory.

The co-existence of both species on the same ground depends on the abundance of food and safe nest locations. Drought has to be figured in that equation, too.

I have some sympathy for the fox squirrels that have recently moved into my neighborhood. I know they bedevil some gardeners with their backyard foraging, and they can be destructive. I know they preferentially settle places like mine, places where the order of nature has been disrupted by bulldozers and tract houses to make a new place. What looks like rough domesticity to me probably looks like a fecund wilderness of possibilities to the fox squirrels.

There are some observers who would prefer that the non-native fox squirrels had been kept in their place, just as some would prefer that my Okie and Arkie neighbors, with their taste for squirrel meat, had kept to theirs. But my neighborhood wouldn't be the same without all of them.

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