I’m smarter than squirrels. But not by much.
When they raided my bird feeder I took action. The feeder hung from one of our apple trees. It looked like a little cabin with top-to-bottom windows on two sides, through which you could see the seed. It had a spacious wrap-around porch-perch-platform. The slightest agitation, a blue jay coming in for a landing, a pair of nuthatches shoveling through the mix with their pointer beaks, caused a gentle cascade of seed onto the platform. It was an interdisciplinary seed mix (all birds welcome, something for everyone). A full feeder should have lasted a week or so.
Whenever I filled the feeder, as soon as I went back inside the house they climbed face-first down the six feet of the steel cable, from the apple tree to the feeder roof, then somersaulted onto platform. It was an impressive gymnastic feat. Whereupon a pillaging, gorging rampage began, cleaning out the stores in an hour or two.
For a while I took potshots at them with a beebee gun from an upstairs bedroom.
“I wish you wouldn’t do that,” my wife said.
“This is my squirrel control program.”
“It’s terrible. You should be ashamed of yourself.”
On one hand, I was just a little ashamed of myself. It was so easy. And, to be honest, kind of fun. But, I admit, it was a perverse kind of fun. On the other hand, I felt like a vigilante, righteous about taking the law into my own hands. What law? The law of nature. Man against creature. I was bending squirrels to my will. Also the law of the land. I was exercising my Constitutional right to bear beebee gun and protect my property.
“You kill them,” she said.
“I hurt them a little,” I said. “But I don’t kill them.”
I knew for a possible fact that I didn’t kill them. When I was eight years old, one autumn evening Harold Rice, two doors down from our house, had raked up a pile of leaves and was burning them in his garden out behind his house. Like most eight-year-olds, I was interested in fire. I wandered into his yard that evening and got close to the fire, which had burned down to a smoldering pile. Thinking I might resuscitate it, I leaned over the fire and began stirring it with a stick, exposing, in that posture, my eight-year-old backside. A kid named Gary Schaffer, who lived in the next house over from the Rices’, older than me by a couple years, and known, at least by me, to have a mean streak, was lurking in the bushes, armed with a beebee gun. He saw my backside as an open invitation, an irresistible target. I took one on the cheek. It hurt. A lot. But it didn’t kill me.
My wife asks, “How do you know you don’t kill them?”
Violence begets violence. Had I become Gary Schaffer, taking my shame, humiliation, and hurt out on innocent creatures?
A squirrel, I was sure, has a tougher hide than a tender eight-year-old boy. I told her I just knew it.
“If they would leave the feeder alone,” I said, “we could peacefully co-exist.”
A friend ours says he eats squirrel. Or he used to. Raised on a farm in Tennessee, he says his mother made squirrel stew for dinner. They were tasty.
“We could eat them,” I said to my wife.
“Don’t be ridiculous.”
“What about Bruce?” I said. “He used to eat them.”
“They probably taste like chicken. Only gamey.”
“I hate that word, gamey.”
“Squirrels are rodents.”
I would need to graduate to a deadlier weapon. A pellet gun or a 22. I said so.
“You’ve never hunted anything. You don’t fish. You don’t even garden. You go to Kroger.”
I hunted frogs as a kid, with the same beebee gun I was using now. Killing frogs for sport, mostly, Gary-Schaffer-style, though one time Roger Kipfmiller and I, after bagging 50 or so, took them home for his dad to cook up a batch of frog legs. They tasted like chicken.
I reminded her I hunted pheasants up North once with Steve, my cousin. He let me handle a real shotgun.
“Once,” she said. “And that wasn’t hunting. Those birds were planted. And they weren’t even pheasants.”
They were chukers, a game bird in the partridge family. When the dog flushed them out of the grass I thought they flew as if their heart wasn’t really in it, as if they were a little bit drunk. Steve and I and his son blasted away, all three of us at once. They didn’t stand a chance.
“One of them was a pheasant,” I said. “I’m sure of it.” I wasn’t sure. Adding: “We eat rabbit. Why not squirrel?”
In addition to being a cute animal, rabbit makes a fine meal, tasting somewhat like chicken, only gamey. But a good rabbit is hard to find where we live. I see them in a gourmet market, at a scandalous price. There are no rabbits at Kroger. They are just not much in demand. A friend who had an Italian restaurant down the road from us put rabbit on the menu, then took rabbit off the menu. Americans wouldn’t order rabbit.
We recently discovered that Norm, our potato and egg man at the Eastern Market, brings a couple frozen rabbits with him every Saturday. Domestic bunnies, they’re in the cooler, next to frozen chickens, ready to cook.
My wife and I take turns. Her rabbit recipe, akin to a fricassee, she got from her Aunt Teresa in San Marino; mine is a roast recipe I got from Trattoria Mario in Florence.
If rabbit, why not squirrel?
There is a long tradition of squirrel-eating in the Southern US. Hence the testimony of Bruce, our Tennessee-born pal. Also, witness squirrel scholars at the University of Michigan, who report that squirrels “have economic importance in some states, such as Mississippi, where 2.5 million are harvested each year with an economic impact of $12.5 million.”
At length my wife prevails upon me to lay down arms. During this ceasefire I test bird feeder baffling systems, installing metal guards on the steel cable between the feeder and the apple tree limb.
The first device looks like a recycled cymbal from a kid’s drum set. It sort of works. Approaching from above, nose-first, a few squirrels reverse course, a delight to watch, and scramble back up the cable; the more determined ones–ravenous, determined, brazen–negotiate the baffle and seize the platform. They scare away all the birds and eat everything. I try another baffle, which is funnel-shaped, reminding me of a metal dunce cap. It’s a little more effective. But ultimately, same result: A few undeterred squirrels, loads of feed disappearing in a morning or afternoon. I wonder if squirrels gloat.
It’s the idea of some foods, like squirrel, that’s downright distasteful. You don’t even have to taste beef tongue or heart, for example, to know that you don’t like it. Most people I know would just say no to tripe or snails or horse meat. (I had pony ragu in Verona a few years ago—it was delicious.) At a game dinner in Italy one year I ate porcupine. In China last year we ate fried bugs and fried pig intestine. An acquaintance came home from there having been asked, at a ceremonial function where he was a guest, to eat a toad.
At an all-rabbit banquet one night at the local San Marino Club, my wife and I sat across the table from Tony Moraccini, a San Marino guy, a great cook who had supervised the evening’s rabbit prep and cooking. His father, Tony said, had slaughtered pigs back in San Marino and Italy, working seven days a week for a few months every fall.
“When I was a kid we ate every piece of pig there was,” he said. “Ears, cheeks, feet. The blood was always saved to make pudding.”
He said there was only one thing he didn’t like and could not eat.
I read recently that London has a squirrel problem. A public nuisance like the pigeons in Venice, the London squirrel population numbers in the millions. Author and chef Robert Owen Brown, described as “a true hunter-gatherer, a darling, and an all-round good egg,” suggests that we just eat the little buggers. In his most recent cookbook, Crispy Squirrel and Vimto Trifle, he serves up the how-to. According to Brown, squirrel is “a delicious meat—incredibly sweet and nutty (thanks to its berry and nut-based diet) and very, very lean. The loin is very small so you cook it exactly as you would a rabbit, either very quickly or for a long time.”
That’s good enough for me. (But not my wife.) Here’s the rub: I would have to kill them. Kill. Them. And then of course, there’s what comes next: head, fur, blood, guts, bone, tail, feet.
She’s right. I shop at Kroger.
After baffle failure I take down my little house bird feeder on the apple tree and hang a finch feeder on a crook right outside the kitchen window, thinking squirrels will leave it alone. Wrong. For sport, for their own perverse pleasure, the squirrels will not be denied. They shinny up the crook, hug the finch feeder, and attempt to violate it. Evidently they do it for their sport.
In a last ditch effort I grease the crook with Crisco, and by God, it works.
The pesky things shinny up 18 to 24 inches and then lose traction, slowly sliding down the greased pole. It’s an effective, non-violent solution. And it’s highly entertaining. I spend an afternoon effectively thwarting them, watching their ignominious slide. But this measure is also labor intensive. One application of Crisco lasts an afternoon. I realize I’ll have to factor the cost of lube–in time and money–into the cost of feeding the birds.
It’s almost worth it. But not. For an afternoon, though, it’s enough. I definitely feel smarter than a squirrel.