Chicken of the trees | Food & Drink Feature | Chicago Reader

Chicken of the trees 

The rural eastern gray squirrel has long been a valued food source, but what about its urban cousin?

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  • Michael Boyd
  • "We have made a cultural decision to self-limit protein," Steve Sullivan says of squirrel.

I asked Knoblitt why Mellencamp cut off the heads when he was skinning them. Doesn't anybody eat them? "It tastes like every nut in the forest. It's full of flavor," he affirmed, but lots of folks stopped eating them for fear of mad squirrel disease. He then looked me straight in the eye and his face abruptly twitched and froze in a contorted rictus. I looked around uncomfortably and felt relieved when he started laughing.

Pretty much every squirrel recipe you can find is written on the assumption that cooks will obtain wild country squirrels like the ones the Indiana hunters sent me home with: animals fattened on acorns, hickory nuts, walnuts, and perhaps the odd nest egg or two. Nowhere does anyone advise the consumption of their far more fearless and omnivorous urban brethren. Why is that?

First there's the question of diet. City squirrels, faced with a relatively scarcer supply of tree nuts, supplement with the bounty of gardens and bird feeders, or scavenge what we cast away. They're rats with good PR, as the saying goes.

Rats at least know fear. City squirrels, on the other hand, know that the municipal code prevents you from drawing a bead on them with a muzzle loader. This emboldens the sort of bad behavior a Washington County squirrel wouldn't dream of. A squirrel (or maybe it was two) ran onto the field during two sold-out games of the National League Division Series at Busch Stadium in Saint Louis last fall—and scampered across home plate while the Cardinals' Skip Schumaker was at bat in the fifth inning of game four before leaping into the stands. One afternoon a few summers back I followed a furious rustling into the kitchen and found a plump squirrel perched atop the counter tearing into a bag of peanut M&M's. While my cat dozed in a corner, it stood on its hind legs and confronted me with a hideous moaning, quacking call—QUA-QUA-QUA—before retreating through the hole it had torn in the window screen. I can count dozens and dozens of them along the path of my morning run, recently blocked by a bushy-tail nibbling on a piece of toast.

Would eating a Dumpster-diving rodent addicted to cold pizza, hot dogs, and tomatoes be any worse than eating a battery chicken that lives its life in a square-foot space sustained on slaughterhouse waste and antibiotics? Do they pick up any diseases or parasites their country cousins don't?

"Most problematic issues can be taken care of by thorough cooking, so eating is going to be the least of your worries," says Steve Sullivan, curator of urban ecology for the Chicago Academy of Sciences and a specialist in the urban squirrel. He heads up Project Squirrel, a "citizen science" study that invites participants to log squirrel sightings on its website with the aim of gaining insights into the larger local ecosystem.

Sullivan didn't recoil when I asked if him if there was any reason not to eat city squirrels. Speaking strictly theoretically, he said it wouldn't be a bad idea at all—with proper management.

"People cry about how much corn it takes and how much land it takes to make a cow," he says, "and especially pigs, with their excretory fluids in our waterways and things. Well, squirrels don't have any of those issues. So why would we not be using those, say, from the health, environmental, ethical standpoint? I don't see any reason not to, other than this cultural hang-up."

The gray squirrel is remarkably prolific, Sullivan pointed out, sometimes breeding twice in a year with litters ranging in size from two to four pups. And it's resilient. "Squirrel populations can withstand relatively high levels of harvest without a significant decrease in abundance because of compensatory reproduction," biologists Michael A. Steele and John L. Koprowski write in North American Tree Squirrels, the authoritative work on the subject.

There are lots of complicating variables, but "one of the rules of thumb," says Sullivan, "is you can harvest something less than 80 percent of the squirrel population every year and have it bounce back." Roughly 80 percent of all squirrels don't make it past their first year, with most dying from predators and starvation. "They're selected for reproduction rather than longevity, unlike, say, elephants," he points out.

There's even a possibility, though purely hypothetical, that reducing the eastern gray squirrel's numbers in the city would improve biodiversity by encouraging the fox squirrel—which tends to get pushed around by the gray—to move in.

Sullivan is, in theory at least, a dauntless omnivore. There are plenty of invasive and overpopulated plant and animal species in and around the city for which persuasive arguments could be made for promoting them in our diets: Asian carp, Louisiana crayfish, and garlic mustard greens, to name a few. "The fact of the matter is that we have made a cultural decision to self-limit protein," he says. "That's a very arbitrary decision, and it's silly, ultimately. We have all these other options. Let's use 'em!"

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