A Squirrelly Proposal

Tonight’s dinner could be scampering right in front of you.
By Brendan Buhler

The students will soon come back from summer break—and the hungry campus squirrels will be lying in wait… 

It’s perfectly sane and reasonable to kill and eat a squirrel.

Really, when you think about it, the question isn’t “why am I out here stalking squirrels in an undisclosed location for an uncountable number of days?” It’s “why aren’t you?” Why, there goes one now….

Squirrels are available, sustainable, tasty and—look! another one!—plentiful. Squirrels breed twice a year, with an average litter size of three. Another squirrel will be along soon.

Surely at this point in the food revolution, you’ve been persuaded to eat dandelion greens, odd berries, wild mushrooms, and maybe even some acorns. “Forage,” we’re told. “Enjoy nature’s bounty.”

You’ve probably also spent some time in the last few years being hectored about and horrified by the fate of factory farm animals. Pigs in crates. Debeaked chickens. Antibiotic-laced diets. Cows eating cows. Practices that, clearly, only a monster could be party to. Yet sometimes it seems that something is missing from your new repast of weeds and virtue, something of substance but without shame, something that could convert all of that forage into meat. You remember meat, don’t you?

Mesdames et messieurs, might I suggest the squirrel? It’s especially frisky today, dancing on the other side of that tree, just out of reach….

What? you say. You mean the sort of squirrels that scamper and dance all over Cal’s woodsy campus, those fluffy little ambassadors of higher learning that will bite you to the bone if you come between them and a trash-can french fry?

There’s actually a tradition of hunting for those critters. Berkeley used to have a squirrel fishing club, part of an early 2000s college craze for landing the rodents by using peanuts attached to strings. It was strictly catch and release, alas.

The large reddish-orange squirrels all over campus are eastern fox squirrels and about as native to Berkeley as an NRA bumper sticker. They were brought to California by white settlers from eastern North America, possibly for sport and food. And, like so many easterners, the fox squirrels have stayed for the weather and pushed out the natives.

At Cal, the squirrels are often used as lab subjects. Doctoral student Mikel Delgado, who runs a squirrel research team, is investigating their cognitive processes. Just how smart are squirrels? Delgado says that, intelligence-wise, all animals have certain problems to face in order to survive, and by that measure all animals are pretty smart—they’re just as smart as they need to be.

Yeah, but squirrels? Really?

“They don’t form pair bonds. They don’t co-raise their young. They don’t form societies. On the other hand, there’s a giant industry in squirrel-proof bird feeders,” Delgado said. “They’re not going to cure cancer, though.”

So if the thought of eating intelligent animals gives you pause, fear not. The squirrel is still fair game.

If you really want free-range meat, hunting may be the way to go. Meat doesn’t get any fresher or freer than when it’s wild. Hunting recommits you to environmental conservation; without wild places, there’s no wild game. These animals are living free in nature until you pluck them out of the first reel of a Disney film with an exsanguinating shot through both lungs or the upper spinal column.

Yes, it’s bloody. Of course it’s bloody. Hunting isn’t meat without guilt; all meat has its portion of guilt. Hunting is guilt with responsibility and gratitude. It means not outsourcing the killing. It means making sure that the animal you eat died as humanely as was within your power. Plus, you know what you’re eating. You know where your meat lived and what it ate. Its stomach contents are right there for you to look at.

Squirrel is traditional, too. Possibly the only food as all-American as apple pie is squirrel pie. There’s a delightful cookbook called Unmentionable Cuisine, published in 1979, that complains about “how whole groups of animals came to be classified in our minds as repugnant, even nauseating, and through such prejudices be eliminated completely from our potential repertoire of foods.” The author then goes on to say that squirrel is “one rodent that is not completely foreign to American cuisine.”

This is severely understating the case. Allow me to introduce you to The Joy of Cooking—not the bowdlerized, low-fat modern edition, nor even the rustic original 1931 edition. I’m talking about the one you know, the one either you or your parents quite possibly have in your kitchen right now. I mean the Joy that tells you how to skin a squirrel. With illustrations. Heck, the 1975 edition even includes advice on opossum, porcupine, raccoon, muskrat, woodchuck, beaver, and armadillo.

Now tell me that the American palate hasn’t constricted, hasn’t cut us off from the flavors of our forebears. Or, as Unmentionable Cuisine would say, behold the “latent versatility of an emancipated American cuisine.”

The Pilgrims ate squirrel. The pioneers ate squirrel, though not if they could get bison. The classics are Brunswick stew and burgoo, both originally substantial, let’s-feed-everybody stews of the hunting season. Unmentionable Cuisine also suggests a Cajun squirrel ravioli, but that’s probably not traditional. A lot of early American cookbooks—a group of books that tend to contain such helpful directions as “season meat” and “cook until done”—treat squirrel as interchangeable with rabbit or (as always) chicken.

I’ve had squirrel before. It’s a deep, rich flavor, like dark-meat turkey meets duck meets pork and then skitters out of sight and leaps into a pine tree, twittering defiance like a Frenchman in a Monty Python movie, the little bastard….

Ahem.

Before setting out to hunt squirrels, I talked to someone who could tell me how to cook them. Hank Shaw, author of Hunt, Gather, Cook: Finding the Forgotten Feast, said they have a dense, nutty flavor. “From a flavor perspective, they’re one of my favorite game animals,” Shaw said. He advises that you stick to stews and braising—nice slow, moist cooking. “Squirrels are extremely tough animals. You can shoot a squirrel with a shotgun at 50 yards and it will laugh at you.”

Shaw said he prefers native western gray squirrels, but he doesn’t hunt them specifically, saying it’s not worth the gas to go up to the Sierras just for squirrel.

“Squirrel hunting in California is not very good,” Shaw warned me. “There are lots of squirrels in California, but not a lot of places to hunt them.” Hunting is subject not just to game regulations, but to state, county, city, and sometimes federal laws. Tree squirrels have a season and require a license, except when they’re considered pests. Ground squirrels are always pests but are also a known reservoir of bubonic plague…. And on and on. By the time you’re hunting squirrel, you’ve often gone far enough and through enough trouble that you might as well be hunting deer or pigs or grouse.

For the California hunter, Shaw recommends ducks.

But I was set on a squirrel.

This squirrel will not be my first. It’ll be my second. Having come to hunting as an adult and having started with deer, I’m doing a lot of this in reverse order. Most hunters probably learned to hunt squirrels when they were kids, before growing out of it and moving on to bigger game.

For a lot of hunters, it’s nostalgic. Or, as T. Edward Nickens puts it in my February 2013 copy of Field & Stream, “The occasional squirrel hunt is like riding a bike with no hands, or smooching with your wife in public.”

I’m not sure I’d tell that comparison to my wife.

While temporarily transplanted to the Northeast and hunting deer, I saw a lot of squirrels. The first 10 or 20 minutes after you tromp into a deer stand (I’m still working on my panther-like stealth) is a period of intense silence. And then … the forest exhales. Birds sing. Squirrels appear, foraging and leaping across the canopy. It always made me think that squirrels were an omen of good luck—at least until that time when one of ‘em went scampering up my leg and across my lap. I was damn lucky that neither the gun nor I discharged.

That’s when I started to think about hunting squirrels.

I went into the woods behind the house out East a couple of times in early winter and never saw a squirrel. That’s OK—hunting is a process, not a result. It’s fine to come home with nothing but memories of the foxes, cardinals, and chickadees you saw. All the while, though, a squirrel was raiding my bird feeder at home. One day she was unwise enough to react to the door’s opening by twittering her defiance within range of my pellet rifle.

She was a tasty, tasty squirrel. I braised her Spanish-style, with green olives and almonds. It’s one of Hank Shaw’s recipes.

I had ideas about my first California squirrel. Made some plans to drive out to nut farms in the fall and early winter, all of which finally got scotched either by weather or family circumstances. Now here it is, the last few days of the tree squirrel season in early January.

I’ve finally found a spot in the hills above the East Bay, but it’s pretty limited. I can’t move around much; it’s just a little slice where I can safely take a squirrel with my new pellet rifle. Although I can see lots and lots of squirrels, I have to be in position when they pass through this tiny patch of land at extremely close range. One careless yawn, jerky motion, or noisy trill of the cell phone is all it takes to send them skittering out of range. It’s been days, and I could swear the squirrels in this territory have learned to recognize and now mock my green jacket.

But I’ve identified a nut hoard.

Mikel Delgado told me squirrels are scatter-hoarders, storing every nut in a different location—and they seem to seek out their own hoards, suggesting that it isn’t just a lot of squirrels hiding a lot of nuts and then later finding random hoards. The squirrel that left these nuts will be back.

All I have to do is wait….

Even before she started doing any squirrel research, Delgado fed squirrels in her backyard. One of them bit her. She still feeds them. So I had to ask her—am I going to hell for this?

Delgado laughed. She’s a vegetarian, she said, but she doesn’t want to judge anyone.

“Are you making squirrels extinct?” she asked. “I doubt it.”

Long pause. “That said, I love squirrels and I wouldn’t shoot one.”

I’ve always liked squirrels, too. When they travel from limb to limb, stretching out and flying through impossibly wide gaps in the canopy, it’s balletic—like a treetop Nutcracker Suite. Yet they can be destructive pests, attacking crops and invading attics.

Squirrels are supremely well adapted to the world we’ve built. In the case of the fox squirrel, we’ve extended them far beyond their natural range. So if we’re going to eat meat, why not clean up after ourselves, too?

Right now, right here in the Bay Area, maybe hunting squirrels is a little impractical, I grant you. It may be a little idealistic, perhaps a little naive … but why can’t we dream a little and say, “Eat local. Eat squirrel. Eat wild—Shh! Quiet! There’s one over there!”

Hold on … … …

Got ‘im.

Brendan Buhler’s article “The Teeming Metropolis of You”(Fall 2011) was included in Best American Science and Nature Writing 2012. Next time, ducks. Definitely ducks.
From the Spring 2013 Growing Up issue of California.
Filed under: Science + Health
Image source: Abraham Mignon, Le Nid de Pinsons, 1670. Photo: Erich Lessing/Art Resources, NY/©ArtRes
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Comments

You had me laughing so hard, I started to weep!! This is a GREAT story and reminds me of my first hunting trip with a neighbor when I was just 6 years old. I was the “son” he never had and the first animal he showed me how to hunt, kill, prep and eat was a squirrel….ahhh, those were the days!! Happy hunting to you!!
THis is hilarious and so insightful! Way to go, my hunter-son!
My soon to be wife is a Cal Alum… when we 1st started dating, she had no idea about hunting and probably chalked it up to “redneck games”, for, you see, I am a simple state schooler (Cal Poly- SLO). As time has gone on, she has found a great appreciation for hunting (a passion of mine) and what it symbolizes, means in terms of organic fare, and that its not about killing, but the process. I can’t believe as I opened this magazine that I actually sided with a Cal article! I thoroughly enjoyed this well written article, and laughed out loud a couple of times. Good on you Cal! Way to be truly accepting and open! hope this opens some eyes and minds to what organic living means :)
I love squirrel lovers.
How about we don’t eat meat? That’s a much better solution than going around killing living creatures. I don’t find jokey articles about hunting and eating animals remotely amusing. Your article horrified me. All the squirrels who want can come hang out in my yard safe from idiots like you.
I find this article rather sick. Honestly, it is your business that you enjoy killing animals, who are just as alive as us. I am not a vegan, but at least I understand the issue with our human beings killing every other species on the planet, even though it is not intrinsically wrong since we need to eat in order to survive. But, killing squirrels? Really? These little cute creatures running around the campus and you have the gut to think “oh, that’s a fatty one right there, and I shall cook it in Spanish-style”? Seriously man, keep this to yourself and please don’t encourage people to be cruel to these little creatures.
You are welcome to shoot, field-dress, and consume the squirrels in our yard that have eaten all the cherries off the tree.
There are so many squirrels on campus and they don’t fear people or run away. They are easy targets. Think how many homeless people in Berkeley that could be fed. Seems like a good use of these squirrels. Shut up PETA, humans are carnivores.

Not only are the red squirrels good to eat, but their skins make nice slippers, and their little tails dust the floor behind you as you walk around.

I love to read the remarks written by the readers. These short passages are more amusing then the article; which, I found to be very funny. Hunting is an activity which has been around since man needed to feed himself. How can an activity which is so close to nature be considered shameful and wrong? Hunting for, FOOD, it all about being human.
I enjoyed this article immensely. Well done!
Death is part of the circle of life as well as the food chain. Even hippie vegans kill living organisms to sustain themselves. Plants are alive too, sure they may not be conscious (or are they?) but at the end of the day when you eat a stalk of celery or a carrot you have made something that was once living cease to exist. Legal hunters have done more for conservation efforts and caring for the forest environments than most people who would consider themselves “stewards of our planet” could even dream of. There is nothing wrong with hunting any animals as long as you use what you kill, and make sure it dies in the most humane way possible. Besides squirrel is DELICIOUS and you probably would have trouble telling it apart from chicken if you weren’t told it was squirrel prior to eating it.
As a former wildlife rehabilitator, what I find most distressing in these now-common articles about hunting is the callousness with which people are encouraged to view and engage wildlife. I grew up around hunting and trapping which is precisely why I can’t fathom harming a sentient being this way, purely by volition, for no abject need. Having seen, for years, the violence and cruelty inflicted on wild animals under the auspices of legality and “conservation.” I find it tragic that these perspectives persist in the 21st century when we have a much more progressive understanding of species outside our own. Foodies and locavores who label themselves as courageous because they have the audacity to take another’s life, should make a trip to a wildlife hospital to see what happens to wildlife animals as a result of bad shots, traps, darts, and other hazards we inflict on other species, deliberately and inadvertently both. Or visit a wildlife facility where orphaned animals, including squirrels, are brought in after the adults are thoughtlessly slaughtered — if those young are lucky enough to be found, that is. Or spend time volunteering at one of these hospitals to get a sense of the incredible intelligence, sentience and emotional complexity of these animals they’ve come to view merely as targets. It might change their perspective on what it means to be a thoughtful human — respectful of another living being’s inherent value instead of viewing animals through a crudely utilitarian lens. When I read pieces like this, I fear that perhaps our culture is now past the point of exhibiting any degree of empathy and care for species other than our own. What’s described here is not hunting for abject subsistence and survival. It’s gratuitous. And it’s a sad statement about our society’s food obsession, that so many have no compunction whatsoever in being the agents of needless death and suffering, all for the sake of taste. As far as hunters doing more for conservation than anyone else, as Anonymous writes above, that’s simply not accurate. When you look at the collective amounts of money, volunteer hours and tax payer dollars infused into public lands, parks, and wildlife trusts, the numbers match and exceed what hunters contribute. One of the greatest conservationists in our California and national history was John Muir who abhorred hunting and what it represented. Hunters do contribute to conservation by legal mandate (Pittman-Robertson) and in order to ensure future game animals to hunt for themselves. But let’s be clear that conservation history is filled with individuals like Muir and Carson who saw the inherent value of wildlife, irrespective of human needs, and were anything but resolved about violence toward wildlife in our public trust.
If we are not supposed to eat animals, why are they made of meat?
It is not wierd to kill a squirel,the food chain goes in circle, everyone kills everyone.

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