“Animals may constantly be seen to pause, deliberate and resolve.” – Charles Darwin
Who am I to control the behavior of squirrels? I am the gardener.
I see them out there, burying acorns in my oakleaf lettuce. Its a sick joke. I’m sure they were snickering as they hopped three feet of chicken wire atop a foot-tall raised bed. I know they sense far better than I when fruit is ripe, and I know they are the scoundrels that take only one bite from each blushing Costoluto Genovese. One bite then on to the next, as mindless as dilettante foodies. When I chase them off, they insult me from the trees, chucking and tail-flipping long after I give up and go inside. They know they’ll win. I know they’ll win. They might as well just shit on my doorstep.
Squirrels are punks. Like all living things, I love them–we are inextricably connected–but in my garden, squirrels behave like GG Allin. Unwittingly? Simply following Natural orders? I’m not so sure anymore. Like true punks, squirrels are prone to the sharper kinds of irony. One dark comedian bulldozed six one-gallon pots of three-year hazelnut seedlings to bury hazelnuts. Another, a burly male, watched me from an elm branch while I sowed sunflower seeds. I knew why he was spying: sunflower seeds are a squirrel’s potato chips.
I planted a dozen seeds of Helianthus annuus “Chocolate Cherry,” mulched them lightly with compost (hiding, I thought, the seed locations), and surrounded the bed with with a three-foot tall fence of chicken wire. Admittedly, the fence was there more to protect against rabbits than the squirrels, for whom no fence is a deterrent.
I went inside for ten minutes. When I returned, the seeds had been neatly exhumed, and in their place, dead center in the fenced area, was an empty potato chip bag. The wind must have blown the bag in, I reasoned, but it was a rare, still day in Kansas and the seedbed was surrounded by three-foot shrubs.
Video: Squirrel assault course. Amazing. 1:06 minutes.
Squirrels are powered by proteins and carbohydrates–they generally don’t eat green plants because they can’t efficiently digest cellulose. They certainly have no problem eating fruit, however, particularly when moisture is scarce. And, like any gardener, squirrels love loose and freshly turned soils–so much easier for nut-burying, never mind the precious seedlings or cuttings that happen to be in the way. A big part of a squirrel’s business is about storing those vital winter calories, be it in garden beds, window boxes, patio containers or nursery pots. In late winter, when food caches run out, squirrels will nip off developing buds and gnaw the trunks of trees and shrubs, which can cripple or kill a plant. They puncture hoses and drip irrigation tubing in the search for water or, maddeningly, as a way to clean their teeth. No respect at all. Punks.
There’s plenty of popular advice on “getting rid” of squirrels (in essence, an insane concept), and plenty of people selling repellents, traps and poisons. Most don’t work, or, in the case of poisons, just shouldn’t be used. But there are glimmers of hope: squirrels, like many mammals, don’t like hot peppers, so mixing cayenne with your feeder birdseed actually will deter pilferage (without harming the birds or the squirrels). Or, there are these ingenious squirrel-activated bird feeders, proof again that science is a gardener’s ally. This year, I’ll test the effects of chili flakes in my cutting pots, but I don’t hold much hope–a squirrel usually has the last laugh. Until I get one of these bird feeders, that is.
Video: Mr. Squirrel’s Wild Ride, 2:44 mins.
Video: Twirl-a-Squirrel champion, 2:47 mins.
In my experience, the only way to even barely discourage squirrels in the garden is either by constructing Alcatraz-like cages around vulnerable plants–which really makes a garden look natural and welcoming–or by predation.
“When your garden grows corn, eat corn. When your garden grows beans, eat beans. When your garden grows squirrels, eat squirrels.” – Unknown
When I came to Lawrence in 2000, I spent a few weeks researching local food traditions at the Watkins Museum. Most of the pioneer cookbooks had a recipe for Brunswick Stew, which features squirrel and other game common to the Plains, usually prairie chicken. My culinary curiosity, a trait happily yet to ebb, demanded a Brunswick stew on the menu.
A hunter friend supplied five hefty squirrels, each weighing close to two pounds (about a pound dressed), killed in November and fat on walnuts and acorns. Into the pot they went, along with onions, garlic, celery, tomatoes, corn, chiles, thyme and lima beans. A locally raised guinea hen stood in for the prairie chicken, and after five hours at a gentle simmer, I had my first taste of Brunswick stew.
Squirrel meat is sweet and succulent, a flavor cross between the light and dark meats of chicken with the chew of tender pork. Neither green nor gamy, there was nothing “wild” or off-putting in the taste. In fact, in blind tests, most people assumed the squirrel was chicken. The flavor is so palatable that the BBC recently suggested that squirrel might be a readily available and inexpensive protein source for people currently suffering hard economic times.
Learn how to make Squirrel Melts in this Palinesque video.
While squirrel meat is undeniably toothsome, there’s little chance I’ll become a squirrel hunter anytime soon–though rising supermarket prices may force an appraisal of that statement. My squirrel-related frustrations inspire curses and schemes rather than murderous impulses, and I still have plenty of chicken wire on hand to protect baby plants. The safety of my tomatoes is a different matter.
Meet Winky. She came on in August 2011 as the garden’s Pest Deterrent Specialist, and, despite obvious deficiencies, her performance bodes well for the 2012 season. Winky is a fat, one-eyed, three-year old refugee from the Humane Society, formerly a feral woman. Based on the embarrassing size of her teats, she must have mothered at least three litters out there in the bush, and babies gotta eat. I knew it was a good bet this cat could hunt. Only Winky knows how she lost that eye.
So far, Winky has paid the rent with at least a dozen house mice and several voles, and I have already seen her tangle with a squirrel. As we walk in the garden together, Winky listing slightly to port, my heart warms to the taunts and alarm cries from squirrels on high. The only way to fight Nature is with Nature, and it seems that Winky’s presence alone is enough to make squirrels wary of trespass in the garden. So far. Squirrels are cunning problem-solvers and Winky has her work cut out for her.
Truth is, I wouldn’t want a garden entirely without squirrels. A healthy wildlife population is a sign of a healthy ecosystem, and pleasure in my garden is greatly enhanced by the antics of squirrels in the treetops. Squirrels are cogs in the natural wheel; they sow forests, they turn soil. The prominence of black walnuts in the local treescape testifies to that. Despite overt rudeness towards gardeners, and gleeful oafishness in garden situations, squirrels are Nature’s landscapers–the big system needs them, therefore, so do gardeners. Like bees, squirrels are dedicated workers. Such clever, industrious creatures. Such jerks.