This article by Ray Spitzenberger first appeared in IMAGES for February 27, 2020, East Bernard Express, East Bernard, Texas.
When we bought our home here in East Bernard about 45 years ago, there were oak trees in the front yard planted by Dr. Schuhmann, who developed this residential area, but no trees in the backyard. Partly because of my love of pecans, and partly because my mother gave us a native Lee County pecan tree in a bucket and Peg’s daddy, an old Southern, pecan-loving gentleman, gave us a hybrid pecan from a Galveston nursery, we planted two small pecan trees in the backyard. We didn’t realize at the time that with oak trees in the front yard and pecan trees in the backyard, our place would become a mecca for squirrels.
Back in Dime Box, where the woods were thick with post oak trees and native pecan trees, squirrel hunting was one of my daddy’s favorite pastimes. I grew up feasting on barbecued squirrel frequently. Although there are eight species of squirrels, divided into three groups, in Texas, Dime Box, located in Lee County, was overrun with Eastern fox squirrels (which are tree squirrels). This was a good thing for my dad, because only Eastern gray squirrels and Eastern fox squirrels are considered game animals. No one in rural Texas in those days would have considered squirrels cute little creatures to keep in your yard as pets.
Even though post oak trees grew profusely in the poor, dry, sandy soil in Dime Box, they didn’t produce acorns every year, — however, not a problem for the squirrels, considering the groves of native pecan trees also plentiful. By the way post oak trees were named “post” oaks, because they were favored by farmers as fence posts. Both from my own experience with squirrels and from reading about them, I have learned that squirrels really prefer pecans to acorns, although the idea that acorns are poisonous is a myth. Not only do squirrels like green acorns and green and mature pecans, they also love figs (green better than ripe), strawberries, squash and other fruits and vegetables. The wild dew berries growing so plentifully in the wooded areas of Dime Box were liked by squirrels, too. Although peanuts are not technically a nut, squirrels are very fond of peanuts, so, if, like my uncle, you grow peanuts, be prepared for a squirrel invasion.
In the early days in Lee County, Texas, when the German language was spoken widely by many, German immigrants called the squirrels “Eichkatze” (literally, “oak cats”), and that’s what I grew up calling them. Of course, in truth they are rodents rather than felines. Whether they belong to the rat family or the cat family, I was somewhat squeamish about eating them. At least my family never ate armadillo, possum, or rattlesnake. Our wild game feasts were restricted to squirrel and dove, as my family did not hunt deer.
By the time we began attracting a huge squirrel population in our front and back yards in East Bernard, I had given up eating wild game, except for maybe deer sausage (which was mixed with pork). My wife and children thought the squirrels playing and chasing each other in the backyard were a delight to watch, and, I must admit, so did I. However, when the yield from my pecan trees got less and less each year, because the squirrels were eating the nuts while they were still green, I was not happy with these greedy rodents. Then they even started eating our figs from our enormous fig tree, while the fruit was still green, a development which made the birds unhappy, too (they, like us, liked them ripe)! Soon, I wasn’t harvesting enough pecans from our trees for my daughter to make a pecan pie, which she did so well.
To make a long story short, my family and I finally made the decision to let the squirrels have the two trees full of pecans totally for themselves, but we would try to fight them for the figs. With that decision, our squirrel population grew even more, making me wonder if I would have to buy pecans from the store to supplement their groceries. Gatsby, our older cat, had endless fun chasing those squirrels up and down the trees until a limb broke off and he had a hard fall, marking the end of his hunting days. Now, our younger cat, Pixie, has taken to chasing the bushy tailed ones up and down the trees, a hilarious sight to watch, considering most of the squirrels are larger than she is.
You know, I’m really not sorry I turned the pecan trees over to the squirrels, — our backyard has always been more entertaining than television.
Ray Spitzenberger is a retired teacher and pastor, and also the author of a book, It Must Be the Noodles.