Jamie Allen is the creator of the Squirrel Census, a data, science, design, and storytelling team. With the help of 323 volunteer Squirrel Sighters, the six-person team performed a count of eastern grays in Central Park in October 2018. In June of this year, they released the Central Park Squirrel Census 2019 Report.
When you put on a squirrel census, you get asked a lot of questions.
One of the most popular is, Why? In an era marred by gaslighting, climate change, and ill temper, it’s almost as if the act of tallying squirrels becomes the one hunk of gristle that people can’t swallow. But it’s time to answer the difficult questions.
“Wait a minute—why?” is the query that aims for the project’s jugular.
Though the Squirrel Census team had completed several counts of eastern grays in Atlanta, some observers couldn’t take us seriously when we set our sights on Manhattan’s Central Park in October of 2018. It may astound you, but there has never before been a comprehensive count of squirrels in Central Park. Squirrels are really common, of course, and paying close attention to their numbers, while other animals are going extinct, was an effort deemed a bit too twee and citified. On several occasions, our census was labeled a “quirky science project.” Maybe that’s at least partly true. But this is key: once you have filed the project into these categories, you have inhibited your view of it. For instance, we are conditioned by the media to assume that every legitimate research project must have an identifiable, singular purpose: why. You perform a controlled study to find out ___________. But this was a census, which doesn’t seek one answer. It gathers loads of data and stories. In that mosaic emerges a clearer overall picture of the species and the space it inhabits.
Further, most scientists and researchers I’ve encountered enjoy our project, in part because they appreciate any act of discovery that claims no other reason than “because.” Many scientists and researchers are poets at heart. Or maybe poets are scientists and researchers at heart. In the end, they are trying to answer the Big Questions in life: How did we get here? What is the meaning of all this? Why doesn’t he/she love me?
As a writer, I see the Squirrel Census not as a study or even a census of squirrels, but as an endeavor in the humanities. Not unlike Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s The Gates, the two-week-long Central Park count was a public-space art project (and a fresh way for people to interact with one of the best-known parks in the world); it was a wholly original form of community building; it was a way to learn about city squirrels, their habits and behaviors, and their numbers (squirrels are remarkably overlooked in research studies). And most of all, it was—is—a story, a whole and complete narrative presented through multimedia platforms. It is about squirrels, yes, but it is also about the park, and the city, and life in general.
During the Central Park count, volunteer Squirrel Sighters enjoyed searching for squirrels as though on a scavenger hunt; they also remarked how it tuned them to their assigned park hectares as though to a clear country radio station on some backroad of life. They heard and saw new things, or things so old they had forgotten them. They wrote down observations about both squirrels and park-goers on the tally sheets and maps we provided. A friend remarked, “When people in the city go to the park, they finally have room to act like themselves.” By that claim, Sighters were recording notes on Sciurus carolinensis, but they were also scribbling down the activities of Homo sapiens in their most natural state, circa 2018: people hanging out and acting out, playing and competing, loving and kissing, arguing and struggling, podcast-listening and daydreaming, running (lots of runners!) and calling after their dogs (so many dogs), laughing and crying and, like squirrels, just being alive.
In June, we released our Central Park Squirrel Census 2019 Report. We chose to make maps the primary storytelling apparatus. Nat Slaughter, the project cartographer (and its visual author), designed a one-of-a-kind, five-foot-long “terrestrial” survey of Central Park that reflects the human experience. He followed that by generating a five-foot-long “celestial” data visualization that illustrates the squirrel experience—gray and cinnamon and black squirrels spangling the park, clustering in varying densities like stars in a galaxy. The Report includes the “Squirrel Supplemental,” a booklet filled with data, a 45-RPM experiential soundtrack of Central Park, and associated memorabilia. Asking us why we did it is like asking a band why they make music. It’s simply what we do—the instruments we play make this sound.
Below you’ll find a sampling of Sighter notes on squirrels observed during the Central Park Squirrel Census. Squirrels do very odd things. Very human things. Very relatable things. The eastern gray is fascinating, if we only stop for a moment, in all the madness, to observe.
A SAMPLING OF SQUIRREL OBSERVATIONS
From the Central Park Squirrel Census 2019 Report
Notated By the Park Hectare In Which They Occurred
1B “Would come up and fight pigeons.”
1D “Would find a round object on the ground … and tumble/roll around with it.”
2A “Real hams posing for the camera.”
3D “Being chased by a small child.”
5C “Searching for something … but couldn’t find it.”
6B “Seemed very comfortable in his skin.”
7F “Staring into space.”
8F “Being photographed by three people while eating and watching calmly.”
9G “Emerged from a small cluster of wildflowers.”
10D “Like an acrobat, hanging onto branch by its legs upside-down.”
14A “Flailing his arms out.”
15E “Eating together, silently.”
15H “Rubbing its face after digging, the way a human would spread lotion on her face.”
15I “Stood like he was part kangaroo … poised to punch.”
16E “‘Scoffed’ at us.”
18I “Behaving erratically.”
19A “Looked both ways before crossing sidewalk.”
21A “One appeared to mount the other.”
23E “Eating trash by a picnic table.”
21F “Seems to enjoy classical music.”
32A “Extremely scampery.”
33F “Got bored.”
33G “Sort of lunged at me with his torso.”
33I “Looked suspiciously at me while using its hind legs to pat the ground protectively.”
34C “Jumping around and looking almost as if it was chasing the sparrows for fun.”
36B “Approached me on hind legs and puffed out its chest.”
36G “Found because of how loud it was eating.”
37E “Steps forward, puts front paw to chest.”
41A “Stared at me, as if asking, Why are you following me?”
42H “Appeared to be engaging in a flirtatious yet combative ritual.”
Jamie Allen has published work in The Oxford American, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, The Missouri Review, New South, Eyeshot, and other outlets. For more information about the Central Park Squirrel Census 2019 Report, which includes the estimated Central Park squirrel population and an explanation of the count methodology, visit thesquirrelcensus.com.