Tails of Washington Square Park

Ryan Quan/Anna Letson

Faith Gates, Contributing Writer

Cute. Entertaining. Annoying. Thieves. Crazy. They’ve been called many things, but to NYU students, they are neighbors.

Millions of squirrels take up residence in New York public green spaces like Washington Square Park. While some students choose to spend their breaks from class inside, others prefer the live entertainment that the furry-tailed friends offer.

“They just add to the good vibes of Washington Square. It’s fun to see people interact with them and if you don’t try to feed them they don’t mess with you, unlike birds,” CAS sophomore Lourania Oliver said. “And I’ve never heard anyone say they got pooped on by a squirrel.”

Squirrels haven’t always been city dwellers. They have only been here since 1877, when a few gray squirrels were released into Central Park purely out of interest of living peacefully with nature. By 1883, there were already 1,500 squirrels in Central Park alone. Today, millions of squirrels live amongst New Yorkers.

These eastern gray squirrels are still around because of their capacity to cope with all types of weather. Squirrels often bury their nuts, and their strong sense of smell allows them to find them again, even if they’re buried beneath a foot of snow. Squirrels can also survive the harsh winters because of their ability to bulk up to stay warm in the snow. No matter their size, the agile entertainers have amazing acrobatic abilities, climbing trunks and jumping branches aimlessly, to onlookers’ amusement.

However, these hoarders are no fools, and often pretend to bury their nuts to throw off thieves. Some nuts are never dug up and grow into trees.

The entertainment they offer varies, according to a Washington Square Park worker who asked not to be named. From stealing food to stealing homework, the employees have seen it all. Often they see groups of tourists crowded around a tree, and upon further inspection find them watching squirrel intercourse. However, the entertainment of the regular park-goers is often watching lanyard-clad freshmen attempting to pet or hold the squirrels, sometimes resulting in them chasing the students away — and even biting them.

The buck-tooth rodents got their name from the Latin word “rodere,” which means to gnaw, because their front teeth never stop growing. However, they don’t use those chubby cheeks to communicate. Rather, they use scent markings, vocal calls and tail flicks to connect with each other. A tail raised above the body and flicked is usually a sign of aggression.

This aggression can sometimes be seen when the dogs in the park try to attack the squirrels. The innocent tree rats often run zigzag to escape their other air-borne predators: the falcon and the hawk. This isn’t always a good tactic though, as the pesky vermin often venture into the city. This sometimes gets them into serious trouble, like twice in the late 1900s, when a squirrel stepped on a power line and shut down NASDAQ for over an hour, preventing trading of about 20 million shares.

Washington Square Park’s “squirrel lady” Susan Goren, who feeds the squirrels daily, sees them as intelligent friends, as they always remember and come to her.

Washington Square Park is always filled with nutty characters, but none quite as cute as these furry friends — except, perhaps, for pigeons.

A version of this article appeared in the Monday, Sept. 26 print edition. Email Faith Gates at [email protected].