When I thought about doing an internship at the National Museum of American History, the idea of working in the building that houses the Star-Spangled Banner, Abe Lincoln’s top hat, Seinfeld’s puffy shirt, and other national treasures thrilled me. People come from all over the world to see those objects, but I’ve discovered that museum visitors also have another fascination: the squirrels. If you’ve ever visited the museum you may have noticed the cute, fuzzy-wuzzy little creatures that inhabit our front lawn. I’ve never been particularly drawn to squirrels, and in fact, I vividly remember my great-grandmother's collection of cap-guns for keeping the pests away from her bird feeders. So I was somewhat surprised to notice that every time I walk outside the squirrels seem to be the center of attention, receiving oohs and ahhs, being chased by children and adults, posing for countless photos. It’s like having a bunch of little Justin Biebers running around the grounds.
Smithsonian squirrel and Justin Bieber. Resemblance? (Bieber photo courtesy of flickr user jake.auzzie)
To learn more about our squirrels I talked to Dr. Richard Thorington of the National Museum of Natural History, who happens to be one of the world’s foremost squirrel experts (yes, a squirrel expert. This is why I love the Smithsonian). According to Dr. Thorington, around D.C. we have eastern grey squirrels, Sciurus carolinensis. About their diet, he says “grey squirrels are omnivorous and will eat almost anything. Normally, they will feed on nuts and seeds and other edible parts of plants, but they will eat nestling birds and other animals. When readily available, insects can serve as a major dietary component (17-year cicadas, etc.).” What about people feeding the squirrels? Dr. Thorington says “I recommend that people should not feed squirrels by hand. They have sharp teeth and they may not distinguish between the food and your fingers. Feeding them at a feeder seems innocuous” (I think my great-grandmother would beg to differ with his last statement).
However, I don’t think my great-grandmother was alone in her annoyance by the mischievous creatures. According to Joe Brunetti, a Smithsonian Gardens horticulturist who oversees the Victory Garden, “Squirrels will munch on my tomatoes, corn, sunflower seeds, squash blossoms, watermelon, cantaloupe, etc. They taste-test almost everything, and if they like it they set up camp, if not, they toss it aside, wasting a perfectly good fruit. They somehow know exactly when my sunflower seeds are ready for harvesting because they beat me to them every time . . . These are not gentle beings when it comes to harvesting/eating. Manhandling the plants is a phrase that comes to mind. I could go on if you’d like, but that’s it in a ‘nut shell.’”
But whether you find them annoying or adorable, the squirrels are sure to be a part of your museum experience.
Ben Miller is an intern with the New Media program at the National Museum of American History.