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The Number of Squirrels in NYC Parks in a Nutshell


"Curious squirrel, Central Park, New York" by basair is marked with CC BY-NC 2.0.


ELIOT SCHIAPARELLI, HOST: How many squirrels are there in Central Park? It’s not just a trivia question for a dinner party. The answer tells us a lot about the urban environment. And one organization is getting citizen volunteers to figure it out. Rebekah Robinson reports:


REBEKAH ROBINSON, BYLINE: If there is a number one squirrel fan in NYC, it’s Stuart Bowler


STUART BOWLER:If you just open your eyes and watch them and just interact with them a little bit, you'll see how much they are part of especially New York, but a lot of other cities too.


ROBINSON: Bowler lives in the East Village and a few years ago he spotted a strange thing on Instagram: the squirrel census.

BOWLER: And then I found people that were interested in the same thing I was interested in. I'm like, wow, well, this is right up my alley.


ROBINSON: And became a volunteer squirrel counter. Here’s how the census works: Over the course of several days, volunteers like Bowler are assigned a small section of a park, and asked to go there twice a day to count the squirrels they see. Jamie Allen is the creator of the Census, and he says the volunteers bring back more than just a number.


JAMIE ALLEN: You're tuned in to everything that's happening there. So, it's your job to pay attention to everything that's happening capture what's happening.


ROBINSON: Each volunteer gets a tally sheet where they record each squirrel. The fur color. What they are up to. Running. Chasing. Eating. They also record the state of the park: the amount of trash they see, the number of people, and other observations.


JAMIE ALLEN: I think with the current state of the planet, it's important to pay attention to all the animals and all the animal populations to see who's doing well and who's not doing well, the squirrels are doing well. And they have figured out something—they have figured out not only how to survive and do well, but they're doing it in our biggest cities. And they're doing it right next to us.


ROBINSON: It’s not easy. I tried the count out for myself with a tally sheet provided by the Squirrel Census. I only saw 3 squirrels. And recorded the sound of one.


[squirrel sound]


ROBINSON: The squirrel Census recently released its 2020 results. So, how many squirrels are really in Central Park? I asked a few evening park-goers to guess:


SAM DOLGIN: Somewhere between, like 750 to 1500 squirrels, but that number just seems low to me. I don't know. Like if I had to guess I would say something like 10,000.


REBECCA PHIPPS: 36,000?


ROBINSON: Best Guess --


MICK BONDE: 200,000.


ROBINSON: The correct answer? The Squirrel Census estimates there are 2,373 squirrels in Central Park. 2,373.


ROBINSON: Whether you think that is high or low, for scientists it's a hopeful number. Professor Colin Jerolmack is chair of environmental studies at NYU. He says squirrels in New York almost died off in the late 1800s. Since then, their population has boomed.


COLIN JEROLMACK: And so it shows you that these animals are not only are resilient or surviving but have actually successfully adapted to do better in human-altered settings.


ROBINSON: So far, it’s too early to get accurate trends on the squirrel population. The squirrel census hopes to keep doing this count and track how the city is changing. But they also say that you can’t stop at squirrels… there should be an ongoing census of all sorts of factors: like raptor sightings and even the number of rats. Might be hard to get volunteers for that one.


Rebekah Robinson, Columbia Radio News

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