The squirrels in the backyard ate a good chunk of our garden this year, and they’re attacking our Maple trees as I write this, so I’m trying to decide if I should eat squirrels in my backyard – again.
Last year, just before the pandemic began, a few friends and I caught some squirrels in my Denver neighborhood and made a meal of them.
I realize it’s much easier to pick up a chicken at Safeway, but hear me out on this. By eating squirrel, you get the added benefit of imagining all the tomatoes, peaches, apples, cherries, Maple trees, and other stuff you’re saving from being eaten by the rodents. Even my house, which has endured serious squirrel destruction over the years, is safer with each squirrel that’s consumed. And they might taste good too.
You’re allowed to kill “nuisance” squirrels in Colorado, if they are “causing damage” to your property, so I figured I was okay legally to eat them once dead. What worried me, however, was whether they were toxic.
Are Urban Squirrels Poisonous?
It wasn’t exactly comparable, but Denver’s program to control the goose population was inspiring and somewhat reassuring. A couple years ago, the city killed thousands of geese and fed them to people in need of food. You’d think those geese might have been toxic too but it appears that they were not.
I did an online search and found warnings about catching wasting disease from squirrels or about their meat containing chemicals from rodent poisons and garbage.
I consulted with one squirrel-eating enthusiast who cautioned against eating urban-dwelling squirrels like the ones in our yard — especially in winter when there’s less non-garbage food around, which is precisely when we scheduled our squirrel hunt and culinary indulgence. Just recently, my resident squirrels had bitten through my plastic compost bin and were feasting on table scraps. So that was good.
As for wasting disease, my friend told me you’d likely see squirrels acting very strangely around your house if there was disease spreading through the population. Once, we’d seen mangy-looking squirrels with all the hair off their tails, but this was long ago.
So, my thinking was, if they were poisoned, they’d be dead or appear sick.
Someone suggested catching the squirrels, and then feeding them and observing them for a few days before eating them to ensure they were healthy specimens. But we didn’t do this.
I’d also looked briefly into cutting off their heads and having them tested for disease-transmitting prions, as is done with deer and elk in Colorado, but I didn’t do this either.
Just didn’t seem worth it.
Will Urban Squirrels Taste Good?
Aside from whether the squirrels were outright poisonous, we wondered whether they would taste good, having survived on an urban diet.
One squirrel eater raved online about eating squirrels that had been feasting on acorns in the woods near his house, saying the meat had a nutty flavor. In the fall, when the animals eat pinecones, the meat gets bitter, he wrote.
We weren’t going to have nut-fed squirrels, that’s for sure, but most descriptions of squirrel meat that I found were positive, though the trash-eating effect wasn’t factored in.
My cousin sent me a recipe from the diary of her Uncle Charlie, known as “Uncle Chunk” (a large man), who claimed they fried up better than chicken – unless the squirrels were old. You could tell by the “worn and brown teeth,” he wrote.
Most of the recipes online were variations of stew or fried. Or cooked on a stick over a fire. There was a recipe for jerk squirrel — obviously an appropriate preparation — but a less spiced option seemed preferable in order to get the genuine and unadulterated flavor of squirrel.
RELATED: How About Eating Denver’s Squirrels
Who Wants to Eat Squirrel?
Years ago, I’d talked to my hunter friend Michael about eating urban squirrels, and he was excited to give it a try.
And I thought my many friends who hate squirrels the most would jump at the chance to eat them.
One longtime friend is a vegetarian who’s caught hundreds of squirrels in his yard and released them in far-away parks. I got on my knees and begged him to give up vegetarianism for one night to try just one bite of squirrel. Even his college-student son, who’s also a vegetarian, told him to give it up for one day. No way, he said.
Another friend traps and drowns squirrels regularly. She didn’t seem very excited at my invitation to eat them and said they’d be out of town anyway.
I asked if she’d donate a squirrel to our culinary cause, and she volunteered to bait her trap, which I could check on during her absence.
My wife said she didn’t want to eat them at all. She’d read about a man who died after eating squirrel in Pennsylvania. He had organ failure, she said.
Michael’s wife also seemed perplexed by the squirrel-eating idea. They have so little meat, she said. Her plan to go snowboarding had been scuttled by the squirrel project.
She said to Michael, “I’ll try not to let it take away your sex appeal.” Later, she got a photo of Michael eating the squirrel, which she called a “sultry squirrel-eating photo.”
In the end, Michael and I found a couple of other people who wanted to try city squirrel, and so we set a date for the dinner party. One of our friends said his brother had eaten thousands of forest-dwelling squirrels. He was excited to try it.
Catching and Processing
I caught one squirrel the day before the party, and two the morning of it. My brother and my vegetarian squirrel-trapping friend contributed three more, so we had six live squirrels in Have-a-Heart traps, as Michael and I – along with another friend — prepared to butcher them.
One squirrel managed to escape from the trap as we carried it across the lawn. The latching panels must have opened and away it went, up the fence and toward a tree in our neighbor’s yard. I felt kind of happy for it, I admit, then wondered if I’d subsequently spot it taking a bite of one of my peaches, or munching on my house.
After shooting the squirrels with a high-powered pellet gun, we hung them on a sawhorse. The image of them hanging in my back yard, as if we were hunter-gatherers, was satisfying, no question. We were helping reduce a destructive, out-of-control population of rodents insufficiently culled by predators, just like the out-of-control geese in Denver.
Luckily, our neighbors didn’t see the squirrels, hanging by their bushy tails. I realized in that moment that people might freak out at the sight of our dinner.
We cut the squirrels on a plywood board. It wasn’t as gross as I thought it would be — kind of like cleaning a fish, which I’d done on many occasions, except you have to deal with the skin. But with proper preparatory cuts, it peeled off fairly easily.
One squirrel seemed to smell musky, so we tossed it in the trash.
Toward the end of the process, I stabbed myself slightly at the base of my left index finger and was bleeding quite a bit.
I washed out the wound really well but was wondering if a virus might infect me. If I got a bad infection, would I immediately tell the doctor I was butchering squirrel? I’d have to. It was bleeding a lot though, which was good.
We’d decided to pressure cook the squirrels for considerations of time and so the meat would fall off the bones. We browned them in a cast-iron skillet and then placed them over carrots, onions, garlic, and about three cups of homemade chicken broth. The stew cooked for an hour in a magic pot.
If it’s true that squirrel meat takes on the flavor of what the squirrels eat, our (possibly) trash-fed squirrel could have easily tasted horrible. So, as a backup, we made pasta with spicy chicken sausage, kale, lemon zest, garlic, and red pepper, served with a salad of dandelion greens. We had Girl Scout cookies for dessert.
At the Dinner Table
Everyone at the table eventually tried the squirrel meat. My mom and another guest stopped at one bite.
It was much better than expected, dark meat, not tough nor fatty. It tasted kind of like it had an oily coating on it, even though it’s lean. I wouldn’t call the flavor gamey but maybe mildly so. It also had a slightly acidic taste. Which is not to say it was very good, but the risk and low expectations probably made it taste better to us.
There are a bunch of recipes online for curried squirrel, and after eating it, you can see why. The texture was good, and perhaps the strong flavor of the meat could be cut with a curry, without completely hiding the flavor.
One guest didn’t like all the little bones, and some recipes call for removing the bones before serving, which could be a good idea. The worst would be to have the meat stick to the bones. As it was, with the meat falling off the bones, you could easily eat around them, if they didn’t bother you.
I didn’t take much of a second helping, but one of the guests loved it, took more, and had a big pile of bones on his plate.
In the end, with seven people eating the four squirrels, we had leftovers, which we divided among me and two of our guests. I took one small bite the next day, to try to remember the flavor and figure out what it most tasted like. We never finished the small plate of squirrel meat that sat in the fridge.
Would I really eat them again, even if I were super mad at the squirrels?
Yes, but probably not urban ones. I’m not a hunter at all, never even shot a gun, but I’m left wanting to hunt wild squirrel, to try the meat. So, there’s a chance I’ll take up hunting small game.
But the flavor of these squirrels wasn’t good enough for a repeat, even as I face PTSD after a summer of watching them decimate my garden. The idea of eating squirrels in the fall, after they’ve fed on good stuff like seeds, nuts, and fresh ripe garden produce is intriguing but not compelling.
I’ll keep trapping them and letting them loose somewhere else — to stop them from eating my peaches and apples.
But I personally think chicken is hard to beat and the grocery store is like four blocks from my house.