A small, rodent mammal, of the genus Sciurus, having a bushy tail, and very nimble in running and leaping on trees. The common gray and black squirrel of the Eastern United States is S. Carolinensis; the red squirrel of the United States is S. Hudsonius. The ground squirrels belong to the related genus Spermophilus, and the flying squirrel to the genus Pteromys. The flying-squirrel common in the United States is P. volucalla, and another species (P. Hudsonius) occurs at the north. Squirrels subsist chiefly upon nuts, of which they lay up in a store for winter. — Webster, 1882
A grey squirrel reported in Clearwater Township by the Howard Democrat. In the early days, only the meadow lark and the jack rabbit were here, but as the county grew and groves sprung up, birds and animal life of all kinds is in the increase. — De Smet News, July 6, 1917
In Little House in the Big Woods (see Chapter 12, “The Wonderful Machine”), Laura Ingalls Wilder tells us that it “was great fun… Laura was scampering and chattering like the squirrels, from morning to night.” Squirrels are only mentioned in the first three Little House books. Surely there were squirrels in Walnut Grove? I can understand about not seeing them in early day De Smet, since you don’t typically have many squirrels where there are no trees in which for them to hang out.
In his “The Story of Pa and the Deer in the Woods,” (see Little House in the Big Woods, Chapter 3, “The Long Rifle;” this story is also in Pioneer Girl), Pa includes red squirrels as one of the animals he saw as a young boy growing up in the Big Woods. Charles Ingalls didn’t “grow up” in the Big Woods of Wisconsin, having moved to Jefferson County, Wisconsin, in the early 1850s. In Wisconsin, red squirrels (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) are associated with conifer forests and gray squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis) with hardwood forests. While gray and red squirrels can coexist, they do compete for territorial rights.
The red squirrel of the Big Woods of Wisconsin. This squirrel was Sciurus Hudsonius, now known as Tamiasciurus hudsonicus – is 11 to 14 inches in length, including their 4- to 6-inch tail, and they weigh 7 to 10 ounces. They are easily identified by their small size, prominent ears, white eyes and reddish coat (early drawing of a red squirrel shown here). It has been said that the farther south a red squirrel lives, the redder its coat. The tail is cinnamon in color and often has black-tipped hairs. During the summer, the red squirrel sports a black line along each flank, separating the upper reddish coat from their white underparts. In the winter, the coat becomes much brighter and this lateral line disappears.
The red squirrel has many nicknames, including boomer, chatterbox, pine squirrel, and chickaree. The red squirrel feeds primarily on pine seeds, but will eat fruit, nuts, and berries as well as mushrooms and fungi. They are highly territorial; there is no mistaking their scolding chatter if you enter its territory.
Gray squirrel. The gray squirrel and fox squirrels were also found in Pepin, Wisconsin. The gray squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) is 18 to 21 inches long, including its tail, and weighs 16 to 28 ounces. Gray squirrels can vary in color from black to white, with tails usually banded with brown and black hairs featuring white tips. They frequently have a tuft of white hair behind their ears and the chin, throat, and belly are also white. Gray squirrels prefer mature hardwood forests where they feed on acorns, hickory nuts, and walnuts.
Fox squirrel. The fox squirrel (Sciurus niger) is the largest tree squirrel in Wisconsin at 20 to 22 inches long and weighing 24 to 32 ounces. It gets its name from its rusty brown coat, similar to the hair color of foxes. Fox squirrels prefer oak and hickory, but can be found in swamp hardwoods and mixed hardwoods.
Gray squirrel appears on adventurous restaurant menus, and there certainly are enough of the little buggers in my area to supply many a table. (I’ve eaten squirrel in Brunswick stew, and I really can’t say that I could identify the taste, since there the stew also contained chicken and pork.) Check your local hunting regulations to see if squirrel hunting is allowed in your area. You might also want to read up on squirrel diseases, since there seems to be a nasty one linked to the consumption of squirrel brains, considered by some to be a delicacy. You can find online videos showing how to prepare squirrels for cooking.
Squirrels may be fried as chickens, or stewed in a pot with a little water. If you make a pie of squirrels, they should be stewed first to make them tender, and then made in the same way as chicken pie. Squirrels also make very good soup.” — Elizabeth Ellicott Lea, Domestic Cookery, Useful Receipts, and Hints to Young Housekeepers. (Baltimore: Cushings and Bailey, 1869), 18.
Although Laura Ingalls Wilder never comes right out and says her family ate squirrel, she implies that they did in both Little House in the Big Woods and Little House on the Prairie: “In the bitter cold weather Pa could not be sure of finding any wild game to shoot for meat” (BW 1), and squirrel is listed second only to bear, followed by deer and rabbit… “‘This country’s cram-jammed with game,’ [Pa] told [Ma]. ‘I saw fifty deer if I saw one, and antelope, squirrels, rabbits…’” (LHP 4).
Ma might have cooked the following stewed squirrel recipe:
Skin two pairs of fat squirrels, wash them quickly in cold water, or carefully wipe them with a wet cloth to remove the hairs, and cut them in quarters, rejecting the intestines. Put a layer of slices of fat salt pork in a saucepan, then place the squirrels in the saucepan, with a palatable seasoning of salt and pepper, and either a little more salt pork or lard or drippings. Add enough water to prevent burning, cover the saucepan, and cook the squirrels gently until nearly done, uncover the saucepan so that the water in which they were cooked can stew away. Then put in enough cream or good milk to moisten them, let them heat again, see that they are palatably seasoned, and then serve them hot. – Juliet Corson, Practical American Cookery and Household Management (New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1886.), 297-298
squirrel (BW 1, 3, 12; FB 11, 15, 22; LHP 4, 9, 14-15)
“ash leaves as big as a squirrel’s ears” (FB 11) – Did Almanzo mean a baby squirrel or a full-grown one? Debate continues.
red squirrels (BW 3; PG)