|Tables Turned: Squirrel- Style Dining
If acorns and black walnuts are abundant on St. Michael's Day, the fields will be white and Santa can use his sleigh on Christmas Eve.
-Old country saying
St. Michael's Day came and went last week, September 29, if you don't know. If folklore has it right, the fields and everything else will be white: In the woodlands and on the lawns, the mast crop is abundant.
If you visit the Burton backyard to witness the early fall wildlife activity, bring a hard hat. You'll need it.
I haven't been hit on the noggin, but there have been a few close calls. These days, nuts fall from the branches like missiles.
And they aren't acorns or other small nuts, not even black walnuts of a normal season. They're big black walnuts, some almost the size of baseballs. When they hit the grass, you hear a loud thud, louder still if they drop on the walk.
Never have I seen walnuts as big as this year; I'm not kidding when I compare them with baseballs. The backyard tree from which they drop is better than 85 feet high, and a big nut falling from that close to the sky could lay you flat. Usually they're singles or in clusters of two, but this year clusters of three aren't unusual.
Poor Year for Gardens
Black walnuts are the only crop I have in abundance here on the shore of Stoney Creek in North County. With so much rain in 2000, the tomato crop can be assessed depending on which of the two vines one cares to talk about. One produced a dozen big tomatoes, the other 20 small ones, with a few stragglers slowly ripening in the October sun.
The lone pepper plant is still in production; maybe 10 have been plucked thus far. The oak I planted as an acorn from the Wye Oak is tall and stately. Though now more than 25 years old, it has yet to drop its first acorn.
There are a couple other oaks of less notable ancestry, but they're still too young to produce mast for the fat squirrels hereabouts. The wild elderberry is loaded with dark purple fruit, which should please the blue jays, as will all the small exotic berries on a late-blooming Asian tree planted long enough ago that I've forgotten its name.
But Good for the Squirrels
Curiously, the younger black walnut on the southwest side of the house, now about 40 feet tall and planted about 20 years ago, was the most prolific. Every branch is weighted down with nuts, though they aren't of the diameter of those on the other tree.
This smaller tree, progeny of the older one, has long shed most of its leaves in contrast to the other, whose branches remain well leafed. Speculation in the household is the younger tree spent so much energy in such prodigious walnut production in midsummer that there was little left to foster foliage. Nature has its own checks and balances.
I've noticed the squirrels prefer the smaller nuts, no question about it. The younger tree is where they head when they've had their fill of sunflower seed, corn, millet and other goodies dropped from bird feeders or intentionally scattered on the lawn for birds that prefer to feed on the ground.
Squirrels are smarter than we give them credit for. I put three of the big walnuts from the big tree on a food scale and they totaled 15 ounces, which methinks is about what the average gray bushytail weighs. It knows better than to tote something around that is about a third of its own weight and so big that grasping it in the jaws is quite a task indeed.
So most head off to store the smaller walnuts. Those who take the biggies quickly find that by chewing off the bigger green and dark brown outer shells, it's easier to transport them elsewhere in the lawn or in the nearby woods for winter.
Rarely have I seen this before. Usually, a squirrel will take the whole walnut and scamper off to peel it elsewhere, then bury the remaining nut with its super hard shell for later eating. This year the lawn, driveway and walk are loaded with stacks of messy pulp from the casings. It will take many rains to wash away the dark stains.
But I don't mind. The sight of one determined squirrel trying to cart off one of the big walnuts the other day was compensation enough for any staining woes the couple dozen resident bushytails inflict on concrete all season.
This particular squirrel was determined to climb a nearby maple with his prize, but decided to take a route via the wooden fence with thin rails. First, the load made him so front-end top heavy that he fell to the ground. But he kept his grip on the walnut.
Not one to give up, he started up the fence again, and while trying to keep his balance dropped the walnut, which was one of the biggest I have ever seen, probably half his weight and more than twice the size of his head.
The same thing happened the next try.
He finally learned, got on his haunches on the sidewalk and started to peel the walnut - leaving a mound of outer shell about the size of a flop from a calf - before heading into the daffodil garden, where he dug a hole to bury it. I'll wager thereafter he got walnuts for his winter cache from the old tree.
This summer and early fall, I've noticed the squirrels seldom store any of the smaller foods as they usually do. The cracked corn, whole kernel corn, sunflower seeds, even the peanuts taken from my hand are consumed on the spot - though often the squirrels get a safe distance from me before they shell the peanuts.
Why aren't they hoarding these smaller goodies as usual? Can it be they know there is a bountiful mast crop in the wild so they don't need to stash as much away this year? Who knows? It's one of the things that just makes wildlife watching so interesting this year.
If I didn't know how tasty black walnuts were, I'd be wondering why - with all the other handouts - squirrels go to so much trouble to shuck them, then crack into the super-hard shells to get to the meat. Few nuts have the black walnut's unique flavor. They're one of the greatest wild foods available, but utilizing them is work, messy work.
I remember Aunt Caroline driving over them with her car, usually after staining her hands removing the outer casings, which she let harden a bit to make the job easier. Those the wheel of the Chevy didn't crack were finished with a hammer. Then, the sweet, rich and protein-packed meat was small, and digging it out with a nut pick was another time-consuming chore.
But the bottom line is, it was worth it. Go find a black walnut tree, and try Auntie's black walnut loaf. Simple, but great.
Cream together 2 tablespoons shortening and 34 cup sugar. Stir in 1 egg and 2 tablespoons apple butter (apple sauce will do). Next, sift 3 cups flour, 312 teaspoons baking powder and 1 teaspoon salt. Add 112 cups milk, combine with the sugar and shortening and mix well.
Add the nuts - at least 34 cup, but the more the better. Again, mix well, pour the batter into a greased loaf pan and bake in a 350-degree oven for an hour or until done. Serve hot with butter, apple butter, whipped cream cheese or, better still, soft cinnamon butter.
The exotic black walnut flavor will permeate all - and you'll know why the squirrels, Auntie and I go to all the trouble each fall.