40 Fun Facts About the Most Popular American Baby Names of the Last 100 Years

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iStock

Baby naming trends come and go. Some names spike and then drop out of view while others stick around for years. The Social Security Administration's list of the top names over the last 100 years shows how many people have been given a particular name since 1917. Some names accrue numbers slowly, by maintaining a low level of popularity over a long period of time, and some rack up the numbers by being wildly popular for a few years. Boy names tend to be less variable than girl names, so their overall numbers are higher. By the numbers, the first six most popular names are boy names, with the most popular girl name first making an appearance at 7th place overall. The second most popular girl name comes in at 15th. Here are some other things to know about 40 of the most popular U.S. names of the last 100 years, organized into 20 boy and 20 girl names.

BOY NAMES

1. JAMES

The most popular boy name over the past 100 years is James. More than 4.5 million boys have been named James, nearly 3 percent of all boys born during that time. Though it has ranked as low as the 19th most popular name, it was number 1 from 1940-1952.

2. JOHN

John, like James, has stayed consistently popular for boys, though it has slid from number 1 to number 28 over the last 100 years. In 1923, more than 5 percent of all boy babies born that year were named John.

3. ROBERT

Like James and John, Robert has stayed consistently popular over the years. It hasn’t appeared in the top 10 since the end of the 1980s, though. In 1934 Robert, and its variations of Bobby and Bob, all made the top 100.

4. MICHAEL

Michael is the most common boy name for people currently alive. It has not been out of the top 10 names given to baby boys since 1943, and had an unbroken streak at number 1 from 1961 to 1998. In 2016 it was still ranked at number 8.

5. WILLIAM

William is another steady classic, like James, John, and Robert, that has maintained its consistent level of popularity. It did have a brief, minor dip in the 1980s and '90s, but it’s back on top again, or nearly, ranking as the number 3 name for boys, ahead of the other classics, in 2016.

6. DAVID

David has been another steady classic, but it only reached number 1 once, in 1960. But that was a big year for births, so almost 86,000 babies got the name David in that year alone. Dave was also a big hit that year.

7. RICHARD

The name Richard had its biggest year in 1947, and stayed in the top 10 until 1970. In 1959 there were also over 13,000 babies named Ricky, as well as thousands of Ricks.

8. JOSEPH

Joseph’s peak year was 1917, but it has been in the top 25 for the 100 years since. It has never reached number 1 though.

9. THOMAS

There were more than 45,000 baby boys named Thomas in 1955. Its popularity began to decline in the 1970s, but it remains one of the top 50 boy names.

10. CHARLES

Charles ranks 10th of all boy names over the last 100 years, with over 2 million total. It has maintained a steady general popularity, but hit its peak in 1929.

11. JOSHUA

Joshua is the 22nd most popular name of the past century, but it's notable in that it is the highest ranking name that was neither consistently popular over the whole time, nor a baby boomer name. Joshua didn’t break the top 100 names for any year until 1971, and it achieved peak popularity in 2006.

12. KEVIN

Kevin, the 23rd most popular name of the last 100 years, started to spike in popularity at the beginning of the baby boom, reaching a peak in 1963, when more than 30,000 baby boys got the name. It was the first in a string of popular Irish names ending in n, possibly establishing a preference for boy names ending in in/an/on that has continued through the current decade.

13. BRIAN

Brian, another Irish name ending in n, is the 24th most popular boy name overall. It was not particularly popular during the baby boom years, but peaked later in 1977.

14. JASON

Jason is a classic name from Greek mythology, but it was not commonly given to boys in the U.S. until it suddenly spread like wildfire in the 1970s. Its rise was swift, high, and relatively short, making it, according to certain measures, the trendiest boy name of the past 100 years.

15. RYAN

Ryan, a common Irish last name, took off as a first name in the U.S. in 1971, the year after the hit movie Love Story was released, starring Ryan O’Neal. The name Jennifer, a character name in the movie, took off at the same time and went on to dominate the girl name list for years. Ryan also fit it well with the trend toward other boy names ending in n, like Brian and Jason.

16. GARY

Gary is the 31st most popular boy name of the last century. It peaked during the boomer years, boosted by the popularity of actor Gary Cooper.

17. JACOB

Jacob was a rather old-fashioned sounding name when it cracked the top 100 in the mid 1970s, but after a 14-year run as the number 1 baby name for boys starting in 1999, it established itself as the name of a new generation. Just within that time frame, it became the overall 32nd most popular name of the last 100 years.

18. SCOTT

Scott is the 39th most popular boy name of the last 100 years. It’s notable because it was primarily a surname until it began to rise in popularity as a first name in the 1950s and '60s. Many last names became popular first names in the following years (Tyler, Jackson, Cooper, etc.).

19. ALEXANDER

Alexander, which peaked in popularity in 2009, is the 47th most popular boy name of the last 100 years. Unlike most popular boy names, which tend to have one or two syllables and begin with a consonant, Alexander starts with a vowel and has a whopping four syllables.

20. NOAH

Noah is the current number 1 boy name (as of 2016), and though it only broke the top 100 starting in 1995, it already ranks 85th on the most popular of all time. It's part of a newer trend toward biblical names ending in a vowel sound, like Elijah, Jonah, and Isaiah.

GIRL NAMES

1. MARY

The most popular girl name over the past 100 years is Mary. Almost 3.5 million girls have been named Mary—about 2 percent of all girls born during that time. It was the number 1 or 2 name from the beginning of record keeping until 1965, when it started to slide. In 2016 it was ranked at 127.

2. PATRICIA

After Mary, the second most popular name for girls over the past 100 years is Patricia. Though it never made number 1 for any particular year, it stayed close to it through the baby boom years, from 1946-1964. Over 53,000 baby girls were named Patricia in 1952.

3. JENNIFER

Jennifer had a spectacular post-baby-boom rise to the number 1, and it stayed in that position from 1970 until 1984, the year of its peak popularity. It probably got its long-term boost from the 1970 film Love Story, starring Ali MacGraw as a beautiful, tragic character bearing the name.

4. ELIZABETH

Though the name Elizabeth had its year of greatest popularity in the early 1900s, it has stayed consistent over the last 100 years, resisting and weathering trends, hovering near the top 10, and neither spiking nor dropping off in popularity.

5. LINDA

In contrast to Elizabeth, the window of popularity for Linda was relatively brief. It was mostly confined to the baby boom years, but its spike was so dramatic that it qualifies as the trendiest baby name in American history. The number of Lindas rose sharply, putting the name at number 1 in 1947, after a Buddy Clark song, "Linda," topped the charts. It fell just as sharply after a few years, and by 1978 was down to 100th place.

6. BARBARA

In the early Hollywood film era, glamorous actresses like Barbara La Marr, Barbara Bedford, Barbara Kent, and Barbara Stanwyck gave the name Barbara a boost. It stayed in the top 10 from 1927-1958, but dropped off quickly after that.

7. SUSAN

Susan, like Linda and Patricia, was a quintessential baby boom name. At its peak in 1960, over 39,000 baby girls were named Susan.

8. JESSICA

Jessica’s rise to popularity started a little after the Jennifer craze began, but it was probably bolstered by Jennifer and other popular J names like Jason and Joshua. It stayed in the top 10 through the 1980s and '90s.

9. MARGARET

Margaret was far more popular in 1917 than it is 100 years later, but its decline in popularity has been very slow and gradual, meaning that although it hasn’t made the top 10 for decades, it manages to rack up enough numbers year by year to put it at number 9 overall for the century. Over 1 million baby girls have been named Margaret.

10. SARAH

Sarah is another slow-burn classic, varying in popularity a bit over the years, but never swinging wildly. It performed most modestly during the baby boom years. It reached its peak in 1993, when over 24,000 baby girls were named Sarah.

11. KAREN

Though it did first rise from seemingly nowhere at the end of the 1930s, Karen belongs to the latter half of the baby boom years, peaking in 1965. It had a slower decline than other baby boom names like Linda and Susan.

12. ASHLEY

Ashley is the 17th most popular name for girls of the past 100 years, but it didn't even crack the top 1000 until 1964. It was traditionally a boy name, notably as the name of Scarlett O'Hara’s love interest in the hugely popular novel and film Gone with the Wind. It got a big boost as a girl's name in the early 1980s, when it was the name of a female character on the soap opera The Young and the Restless. The name stayed in the top 10 until 2005.

13. CAROL

Carol is another name that started as a boy name; it's a version of Charles. It became popular as a girl name in the 1920s and reached peak popularity 1941.

14. MICHELLE

Michelle had a huge spike in popularity to 4th place in 1966, after the Beatles song “Michelle” became a hit. It stayed in the top 10 for 15 years, making it the 21st most popular girl name of the last 100 years.

15. EMILY

Emily spent over a decade as the number 1 girl name, from 1996-2007. As of last year it was still in the top 10, and it’s become the 22nd most popular name of the past century.

16. SHIRLEY

Shirley, like Linda, was another trendy name, rising quickly to a high level of popularity and then falling off. It reached its peak in 1936, when Shirley Temple was a child superstar and over 35,000 baby girls were given the name.

17. JACQUELINE

In 1960 John F. Kennedy announced his candidacy for president. The next year the name of his glamorous wife shot up almost 50 places to become the 37th most popular name for girls. The name reached a peak in 1964, after Kennedy’s assassination, when almost 12,000 girls were named Jacqueline. It never reached top 10, or even the top 30, but it stayed popular enough to become the 72nd most popular girl name of the last 100 years.

18. MADISON

The name Madison was not on any list of girl names until the movie Splash came out in 1984. In the film, a mermaid (played by Daryl Hannah) finds her way to New York, where she decides to take the name Madison after seeing a street sign for Madison Avenue. The movie was a hit and so was the name. By 2001 it had become the number 2 name for girls, and it's become the 90th most popular name over the last 100 years.

19. KAYLA

A fictional character also gave rise to Kayla, the 100th most popular name of the last 100 years. According to the baby-naming guide Beyond Jennifer & Jason by Linda Rosenkrantz, the spark that started rocketing Kayla up the name list in 1982 was the introduction of a character by that name on the soap opera Days of Our Lives. It spent 17 years in the top 20.

20. EMMA

Emma is the current number 1 name for girls (as of 2016) and the 50th most popular girl name of the past 100 years. It was also popular in the year 1900, but it declined in popularity to a low of 461 on the list for 1976. It then started gradually rising to return to the top 20, where it's now been since 1999. Names go in and out of style, but Emma proves that they can go out and come back after a long absence.

20 Best Docuseries You Can Stream Right Now

A still from Netflix's The Devil Next Door (2019).
A still from Netflix's The Devil Next Door (2019).
Netflix

If your main interests are true crime and cooking, you’re in the middle of a Renaissance Age. The Michelangelos of nonfiction are consistently bringing stellar storytelling to twisty tales of murder and mayhem as well as luxurious shots of food prepared by the most creative culinary minds.

But these aren’t the only genres that documentary series are tackling. There’s a host of history, arts, travel, and more at your streaming fingertips. When you want to take a break from puzzling out who’s been wrongfully imprisoned, that is.

Here are the 20 best docuseries to watch right now, so start streaming.

1. Making a Murderer (2015-)

One of the major true crime phenomenons of 2015 was 10 years in the making. Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos uncovered the unthinkable story of Steven Avery, a man wrongfully convicted of sexual assault who was later convicted of murdering a different woman, Teresa Halbach. Not just a magnifying glass on the justice system and a potential small town conspiracy, it’s also a display of how stories can successfully get our blood boiling. Three years after the docuseries became a surprise hit for Netflix, it returned for a second season in 2018.

Where to watch it: Netflix

2. The Staircase (2004-2018)

In 2001, author Michael Peterson reported to police that his wife, Kathleen, had died after falling down a set of stairs, but police didn’t buy the story and charged him with her murder. Before the current true crime boom, before Serial and all the rest, there was The StaircaseJean-Xavier de Lestrade’s Peabody Award-winning docuseries following Peterson’s winding court case. The mystery at the heart of the trial and the unparalleled access Lestrade had to Peterson’s defense make this a must-see. And Netflix's addition of new episodes in 2018 led to a resurgence in interest in this mind-boggling case (with armchair detectives even positing that an owl was the real killer).

Where to watch it: Netflix

3. Flint Town (2018)

If your heart is broken by what’s going on in Flint, Michigan, be prepared to have that pain magnified and complicated. The filmmakers behind this provocative series were embedded with police in Flint to offer us a glimpse at the area’s local struggles and national attention from November 2015 through early 2017.

Where to watch it: Netflix

4. The Jinx (2015)

After the massive success of Serial in 2014, a one-two punch of true crime docuseries landed the following year. The first was the immensely captivating study of power, The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst, which chronicled the bizarre, tangled web of the real estate mogul who was suspected of several murders. The show, which could be measured in jaw-drops per hour, both registered real life and uniquely affected it.

Where to watch it: HBO Now and Hulu

5. Wild Wild Country (2018)

What happens when an Indian guru with thousands of American followers sets up shop near a small town in Oregon with the intent to create a commune? Incredibly sourced, this documentary touches on every major civic issue—from religious liberty to voting rights. When you choose a side, be prepared to switch. Multiple times.

Where to watch it: Netflix

6. Wormwood (2017)

Documentary titan Errol Morris turns his keen eye to a CIA project that’s as famous as it is unknown—MKUltra. A Cold War-era mind control experiment. LSD and hypnosis. The mysterious death of a scientist. His son’s 60-year search for answers. Morris brings his incisive eye to the hunt.

Where to watch it: Netflix

7. Five Came Back (2017)

Based on Mark Harris’s superlative book, this historical doc features filmmakers like Steven Spielberg and Guillermo del Toro discussing the WWII-era work of predecessors John Ford, William Wyler, John Huston, Frank Capra, and George Stevens. Also narrated by Meryl Streep, it looks at how the war shaped the directors and how they shaped the war. As a bonus, Netflix has the war-time documentaries featured in the film available to stream.

Where to watch it: Netflix

8. The Devil Next Door (2019)

In 1980s Cleveland, John Demjanjuk was living a quiet life as a grandfather and auto worker. Suddenly, he was being extradited to Israel over accusations he was once notorious Nazi concentration camp monster Ivan the Terrible. As Demjanjuk mounts a defense, the trial captivates a country—but was he really the monster? This riveting series will have you guessing until the very end.

Where to watch it: Netflix

9. Ugly Delicious (2018-)

David Chang, the host of the first season of The Mind of a Chef, has returned with a cultural mash-up disguised as a foodie show. What does it mean for pizza to be “authentic”? What do Korea and the American South have in common? With his casual charm in tow, Chang and a variety of special guests explore people the food we love to eat as an artifact that brings us all together.

Where to watch it: Netflix

10. Evil Genius (2018)

At approximately 2:20 p.m. on August 28, 2003, Brian Wells—a pizza deliveryman—walked into a PNC Bank in Erie, Pennsylvania, and handed a note to a teller demanding $250,000 in cash. Wells had a bomb, which was strapped to his body via a metal neck collar, and a loaded shotgun that was fashioned to look like a walking cane. Approximately 12 minutes later, Wells strolled out of the bank with $8702 in cash, then made his way to the McDonald’s next door, where he retrieved a detailed note that told him where to go and what to do next. Within 15 minutes, Wells would be arrested. At 3:18 p.m.—less than an hour after he first entered the bank—the bomb locked around Wells’s neck detonated as police watched (and waited for the bomb squad), killing the 46-year-old in broad daylight. The bizarre incident was just the beginning of Evil Genius, which documents the peculiar case that would eventually entangle a range of unusual suspects, including Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong, and has had armchair detectives—and the FBI—questioning whether Wells was in on the bank robbery, or a genuine victim, for more than a decade.

Where to watch it: Netflix

11. The Confession Tapes (2019)

A spare room. One or two detectives. A weary suspect. That's the set-up for this series that lets archival footage of police interrogations tell its own arresting stories.

Where to watch it: Netflix

12. Our Planet (2019)

Be amazed at the sensational vistas and eclectic wildlife with this beautifully-photographed trek through some of nature's most astounding sights—and the environmental perils that affect them. David Attenborough narrates.

Where to watch it: Netflix

13. The National Parks: America's Best Idea (2009)

The cheapest way to visit Yosemite, Yellowstone, Muir Woods, and more. This Emmy-winning, six-part series is both a travelogue and a history lesson in conservation that takes up the argument of why these beautiful places should be preserved: to quote President Theodore Roosevelt, “for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.”

Where to watch it: Amazon

14. The Innocent Man (2018)

After two brutal murders in 1980s Oklahoma, four men are convicted of the crimes. All of them maintain their innocence, causing observers to question whether they were guilty or themselves victims of police coercion. This drama is based on John Grisham's 2006 book of the same name; Grisham executive produces.

Where to watch it: Netflix

15. Last Chance U (2016-)

Far more than a sports documentary, the story of the players at East Mississippi Community College will have you rooting for personal victories as much as the points on the scoreboard. Many of the outstanding players on the squad lost spots at Division I schools because of disciplinary infractions or failing academics, so they’re seeking redemption in a program that wants them to return to the big-name schools. Later seasons switch focus to a team out of Independence Community College in Independence, Kansas.

Where to watch it: Netflix

16. Vice (2013-)

The series is known for asking tough questions that need immediate answers and giving viewers a street-level view of everything from killing cancer to juvenile justice reform. Its confrontational style of gonzo provocation won’t be everyone’s cup of spiked tea, but it’s filling an important gap that used to be filled by major network investigative journalists. When they let their subjects—from child soldiers suffering PTSD after fighting for ISIS to coal miners in Appalachia—tell their stories, nonfiction magic happens. The first six seasons are available on HBO, with a seventh airing on Showtime in 2020.

Where to watch it: HBO Go

17. Chef's Table (2015-)

From David Gelb, the documentarian behind Jiro Dreams of Sushi, this doc series is a backstage pass to the kitchens of the world’s most elite chefs. The teams at Osteria Francescana, Blue Hill, Alinea, Pujol, and more open their doors to share their process, culinary creativity, and, of course, dozens of delicious courses. There's no shame in licking your screen.

Where to watch it: Netflix

18. The Toys That Made Us (2017-)

Who knew the origin of classic toy lines could be so dramatic? This series puts the spotlight on the creative friction that led to some of the most iconic playthings of the 20th century, from Transformers to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

Where to watch it: Netflix

19. The Eighties (2016)

CNN's series highlighting the pop culture of the neon-colored decade boasts familiar talking heads like Tom Hanks and enough nostalgia to keep you afloat for weeks. The network's The Seventies and The Nineties are also available.

Where to watch it: Netflix

20. Bobby Kennedy for President (2018)

This four-part series utilizes a wealth of footage, including unseen personal videos, to share the tragic story of Robert F. Kennedy’s run for president in the context of an era riven by racial strife. Watching this socio-political memorial told by many who were there (including Marian Wright and Congressman John Lewis), it will be impossible not to draw connections to the current day and wonder: What if?

Where to watch it: Netflix

16 Facts About Squirrels for Squirrel Appreciation Day

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iStock

Even if you live in a big city, you probably see wildlife on a regular basis. Namely, you're sure to run into a lot of squirrels, even in the densest urban areas. And if you happen to live on a college campus, well, you're probably overrun with them. While some people might view them as adorable, others see them as persistent pests bent on chewing on and nesting in everything in sight. But in honor of National Squirrel Appreciation Day, here are 16 reasons you should appreciate the savvy, amazing, bushy-tailed critters.

1. Squirrels can jump really, really far.

A flying squirrel soars through the air
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In one study of the tree-dwelling plantain squirrels that roam the campus of the National University of Singapore, squirrels were observed jumping almost 10 feet at a stretch. In another study with the eastern ground squirrel, one researcher observed a squirrel jumping more than 8 feet between a tree stump and a feeding platform, propelling itself 10 times the length of its body. Flying squirrels, obviously, can traverse much farther distances midair—the northern flying squirrel, for instance, can glide up to 295 feet.

2. Squirrels are very organized.

A squirrel digs in a grassy field filled with fallen leaves.
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In fact, they may be more organized than you are. A 2017 study found that eastern fox squirrels living on UC Berkeley's campus cache their nuts according to type. When given a mixture of walnuts, pecans, almonds, and hazelnuts, the squirrels took the time to hide each type of nut in a specific place. This method of "spatial chunking" may help them remember where the nuts are when they go to retrieve them later. Though the study wasn't able to determine this for sure, the study's results suggested that the squirrels may have been organizing their caches by even more subtle categories, like the size of the nuts.

3. Squirrels are also forgetful, and that forgetfulness helps trees grow.

Looking up a tree trunk at a squirrel climbing down
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Tree squirrels are one of the most important animals around when it comes to planting forests. Though they may be careful about where they bury their acorns and other nuts, they still forget about quite a few of their caches (or at least neglect to retrieve them). When they do, those acorns often sprout, resulting in more trees—and eventually, yet more acorns for the squirrels.

4. Squirrels help truffles thrive.

A man holds a truffle up for the camera.
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The squirrel digestive system also plays an important role in the survival of truffles. While above-ground mushrooms can spread their spores through the air, truffles grow below ground. Instead of relying on the air, they depend on hungry animals like squirrels to spread their spores to host plants elsewhere. The northern flying squirrel, found in forests across North America, depends largely on the buried fungi to make up its diet, and plays a major role in truffle propagation. The squirrels poop out the spores unharmed on the forest floor, allowing the fungi to take hold and form a symbiotic relationship with the tree roots it's dropped near.

5. Squirrels are one of the few mammals that can sprint down a tree head-first.

A squirrel stands on the knot of a tree trunk looking down at the ground.
iStock

You may not be too impressed when you see a squirrel running down a tree, but they're actually accomplishing a major feat. Most animals can't climb vertically down head-first, but squirrel's back ankles can rotate 180°, turning their paws all the way around to grip the tree trunk as they descend.

6. Several towns compete for the title of "Home of the White Squirrel."

A white squirrel in Olney, Illinois stands on its hind legs.
iStock

Squirrels are a more popular town mascot than you might think. Surprisingly, more than one town wants to be known as the "home of the white squirrel," including Kenton, Tennessee; Marionville, Missouri; the Canadian city of Exeter, Ontario; and Brevard, North Carolina, the location of the annual White Squirrel Festival. But Olney, Illinois may be the most intense about its high population of albino squirrels. There is a $750 fine for killing the all-white animals, and they have the legal right-of-way on roads. There's an official city count of the squirrels each year, and in 1997, realizing that local cats posed a threat to the beloved rodent residents, the city council banned residents from letting their cats run loose outdoors. In 2002, the city held a 100-Year White Squirrel Celebration, erecting a monument and holding a "squirrel blessing" by a priest. Police officers wore special squirrel-themed patches for the event.

7. Squirrels could aid in stroke research.

An illustration of different regions of the brain lighting up in blue
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Ground squirrels hibernate in the winter, and the way their brains function while they do may help scientists develop a new drug that can limit the brain damage caused by strokes. When ground squirrels hibernate, their core body temperature drops dramatically—in the case of the arctic ground squirrel, to as low as 26.7°F, possibly the lowest body temperature of any mammal on Earth. During this extra-cold hibernation, a squirrel's brain undergoes cellular changes that help its brain deal with reduced blood flow. Researchers are currently trying to develop a drug that could mimic that process in the human brain, preventing brain cells from dying when blood flow to the brain is cut off during a stroke.

8. Squirrel fur may have spread leprosy in the Middle Ages.

A woman in a fur vest with a hood faces away from the camera and stares out over the water.
iStock

If you always warn your friends not to pet or feed squirrels because they can spread disease, put this story in your back pocket for later: They may have helped leprosy spread from Scandinavia to the UK in the 9th century. Research published in 2017 found a strain of leprosy similar to a modern variant found in squirrels in southern England in the skull of a woman who lived in England sometime between 885 and 1015 CE. The scientists suggest that the leprosy may have arrived along with Viking squirrel pelts. "It is possible that this strain of leprosy was proliferated in the South East of England by contact with highly prized squirrel pelt and meat, which was traded by the Vikings at the time this woman was alive," one of the authors told The Guardian. That may not be the most uplifting reason to appreciate squirrels, but it's hard not to admire their influence!

9. Squirrels are more powerful than hackers.

A squirrel runs across a power line.
Frederic J. Brown, AFP/Getty Images

While energy companies may worry about hackers disrupting the power grid, squirrels are actually far more powerful than cyber-whizzes when it comes to sabotaging our electricity supply. A website called Cyber Squirrel 1 documents every public record of squirrels and other animals disrupting power services dating back to 1987. It has counted more than 1100 squirrel-related outages across the world for that time period, which is no doubt a vast underestimate. In a 2016 survey of public power utilities, wildlife was the most common cause of power outages, and for most power companies, that tends to mean squirrels.

10. Squirrels can heat up their tails to ward off predators.

A ground squirrel sits with its mouth open.
David McNew, Getty Images

California ground squirrels have an interesting way of scaring off rattlesnakes. Like cats, their tails puff up when they go on the defense. A squirrel will wave its tail at a rattlesnake to convince the snake that it's a formidable opponent. Surprisingly, they whip their tails at their foes whether it's light or dark outside. Squirrels can control the blood flow to their tails to cool down or keep warm, and they use this to their advantage in a fight, pumping blood into their tails. Even if the rattlesnakes can't see the bushy tails, researchers found in 2007, they can sense the heat coming off them.

11. Squirrels help scientists determine whether a forest is healthy.

A squirrel runs down a tree trunk toward a pile of leaves.
iStock

Researchers look at tree squirrel populations to measure just how well a forest ecosystem is faring. Because they depend on their forest habitats for seeds, nesting sites, and food storage, the presence and demographics of tree squirrels in an area is a good bellwether for the health of a mature forest. Studying changes in squirrel populations can help experts determine the environmental impact of logging, fires, and other events that alter forest habitats [PDF].

12. Squirrels can lie.

A squirrel with a bushy tail stands on its hind legs.
iStock

Gray squirrels know how to deceive. They can engage in what's called "tactical deception," a behavior previously only seen in primates, as a study in 2008 found. When they think they're being watched by someone looking to pilfer their cache of food, the researchers discovered, they will pretend to dig a hole as if burying their acorn or nut, but tuck their snack into their mouth and go bury it elsewhere.

13. Squirrels used to be America's most popular pet.

A man in a hat kisses a squirrel on the White House grounds
Harris & Ewing, Library of Congress // Public Domain

Though some states currently ban (or require permits for) keeping squirrels as pets, it was once commonplace. Warren G. Harding kept a squirrel named Pete who would sometimes show up to White House meetings and briefings, where members of Harding's cabinet would bring him nuts. But keeping a squirrel around wasn't just for world leaders—the rodent was the most popular pet in the country, according to Atlas Obscura. From the 1700s onwards, squirrels were a major fixture in the American pet landscape and were sold in pet shops. Despite Harding's love of Pete, by the time he lived in the White House in the 1920s, squirrel ownership was already on the wane, in part due to the rise of exotic animal laws.

14. The mere sight of just one squirrel could once attract a crowd.

A historical photo of nurses leaning down to feed a black squirrel
Library of Congress // Public Domain

The American cities of the 1800s weren't great places to catch a glimpse of wildlife, squirrels included. In fact, the animals were so rare that in the summer of 1856, when a gray squirrel escaped from its cage inside a downtown New York apartment building (where it was surely living as someone's pet), it merited a write-up in The New York Times. According to the paper, several hundred people gathered to gawk at the tree where the squirrel took refuge and try to coax the rodent down. In the end, a police officer had to force the crowd to disperse. The paper did not document what happened to the poor squirrel.

15. In the 19th century, squirrels were tasked with teaching compassion.

A boy doing homework with a squirrel on the table.
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

In the mid-1800s, seeking to return a little bit of nature to concrete jungles, cities began re-introducing squirrels to their urban parks. Squirrels provided a rare opportunity for city slickers to see wildlife, but they were also seen as a sort of moral compass for young boys. Observing and feeding urban squirrels was seen as a way to steer boys away from their "tendency toward cruelty," according to University of Pennsylvania historian Etienne Benson. Boy Scouts founder Ernest Thompson Seton argued in a 1914 article that cities should introduce "missionary squirrels" to cities so that boys could befriend them. He and other advocates of urban squirrels "saw [them] as opportunities for boys to establish trusting, sympathetic, and paternalistic relationships with animal others," Benson writes.

But young boys weren't the only ones that were thought to benefit from a little squirrel-feeding time. When the animals were first reintroduced to parks in the 19th century, feeding squirrels was considered an act of charity—one accessible even to those people who didn't have the means of showing charity in other realms. "Because of the presence of urban squirrels, even the least powerful members of human society could demonstrate the virtue of charity and display their own moral worth," Benson writes. "Gray squirrels helped reshape the American urban park into a site for the performance of charity and compassion for the weak." Even if you were too poor to provide any sort of charity for someone else, you could at least give back to the squirrels.

16. Squirrels used to hate tax season, too.

A colored lithograph shows men and dogs hunting squirrels in a forest.
Currier and Ives, Library of Congress // Public Domain

Though notably absent from big cities, much of the U.S. was once overrun by squirrels. The large population of gray squirrels in early Ohio caused such widespread crop destruction that people were encouraged—nay, required—to hunt them. In 1807, the Ohio General Assembly demanded that citizens not just pay their regular taxes, but add a few squirrel carcasses on top. According to the Ohio History Connection, taxpayers had to submit a minimum of 10 squirrel scalps to the town clerk each year. Tennessee had similar laws, though that state would let people pay in dead crows if they couldn't rustle up enough squirrels.

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