Freeze, drought giving wild animals the one-two punch

The same Easter freeze that devastated the state's peach crop could lead to a phenomenon unseen in these parts for nearly 40 years a massive squirrel migration.

Sure, the term sounds funny -- picture squirrels in little covered wagons heading west -- but it's serious stuff.

In September 1968, squirrels searching for more hospitable living conditions along the Eastern Seaboard ended up dead along the highways and floating in lake spillways throughout the Southeast.

Wildlife officials have no idea whether another September migration is near, but they do see a repeat of one factor in the last one -- the Easter freeze wiped out white oak acorn production.

That most likely means residents in areas hit by the freeze will have to deal with more squirrels than normal raiding backyard bird-feeders. And that might prompt some homeowners to hope for a squirrel migration.

The S.C. Department of Natural Resources does an annual survey of hard-shelled seeds like acorns in the Upstate as part of its management of deer and bear hunting. Scouts found most white oak trees didn't produce acorns this year, said Dennis Chastain, a Pickens County naturalist who helped with the survey.

Hunters scouting deer-feeding areas report similar findings in the Midlands.

In a normal year, red oaks, which have a different biological clock than white oaks, could produce enough acorns to compensate for the poor white oak acorn production. But this year, red oak acorns won't be enough because the drought also has wiped out other food sources, Chastain said.

"I have a 20-acre corn field, and the deer already have consumed half of it," Chastain said. "Normally, they don't start on the corn until later in the year."

More squirrels in people's backyards is a mere nuisance. But wildlife officials are concerned that bears and deer will show up more around houses in the Upstate, sparking more animal-human encounters. Midlands residents don't have to worry about the bears, but they might see more deer munching in backyard gardens.

At first, state officials chuckled when Chastain brought up the possibility of a squirrel migration.

"Squirrels typically do not migrate," said Billy Dukes, small-game project supervisor for the S.C. Department of Natural Resources.

But after doing a little research, wildlife officials are putting some credence in the migration talk. Historical references to squirrel migrations date back centuries. Lewis and Clark wrote of masses of squirrels swimming across the Ohio River.

More recently, University of Maryland squirrel researcher Vagn Flyger documented the 1968 migration. The mountains of North Carolina and Georgia were the hardest-hit areas, but more squirrel roadkill than normal was reported in South Carolina.

While Flyger couldn't come up with a definitive cause for the mass movement, he noted that a bumper crop of acorns in fall 1967 led to a bumper crop of squirrels in spring 1968. A poor crop of acorns in the fall of 1968 meant more squirrels were competing for less food. Those that couldn't find acorns, mostly young ones, moved in large numbers to new locales.

(All factors don't point to a migration in South Carolina this year. Most of the state had average acorn output in 2006, and there's no indication of an overabundance of squirrels this year, wildlife officials said.)

Flyger, who died last year at age 83, reported squirrels in North Carolina in 1968 were so determined to swim across lakes that wildlife officers in boats couldn't force them to turn around.

Unfortunately, squirrels aren't great swimmers, and 45 carcasses were found in two weeks in the spillway of the Cheoah Dam in North Carolina. Hundreds more were found dead on highways. Motorists reported squirrels seemed to be dancing in the roads, apparently spooked by traffic after spending most of their lives in the woods.

Flyger indicated the term "fall reshuffle" was more accurate than "migration."

"It's more like immigration or dispersal," Dukes said. "They don't come back."

They might not leave, especially those living in developed neighborhoods. Instead, this fall might be the ultimate test for the bird feeders advertised as squirrel-proof.