“Hey, Festus, there’s some stuff you don’t know and you might want to rethink your bad-mouthing me like that,” I said.
The response, squirrel gibberish spewing from his mouth like the staccato rhythm of machine-gun fire, suggested Festus might not be taking me seriously. I upped the ante.
“Festus, if you keep it up I’ll cut your tail off and trade it for a Mepps spinner.”
Festus is a red squirrel who has spent most of the summer building a variety of nests and storage facilities on a shelf under the part of our deck covered for wood storage. He has chosen two boxes of clay pigeons, stored there for shooting shotguns from the deck, to cache his food.
We no longer shoot near the house to spare one of our English setters, Colt, who fears loud noises. In other words, Festus has taken over the area and endeared himself to us with his antics. Instead of thwarting his efforts, we encourage him.
Most squirrels find a way to make a nuisance of themselves. They eat insulation from the underside of car hoods, chew electrical wires, nest in attics and do other such annoying things.
Destructive squirrels are especially a problem for folks living in rural areas with spruce or pine forests surrounding them. Several friends living in those areas report dispatching 30, 40 sometimes well more than 50 squirrels in a year.
Dispatching the squirrels may become a chore for a youngster living the rural life. Plenty of folks eat squirrel — it’s tasty, but Alaska’s red squirrels are smaller than their Lower 48 relatives and it takes a fair number to make a meal. Most probably dispose the skinned-out carcass, as modern times seem not to support much of a squirrel fur market.
Nevertheless, I’m willing to wager most folks, and their youngsters, don’t know there is a market for squirrel tails, and many have probably used them without knowing it.
The subject of squirrels came from a recent conversation with Matt Collins, the host of a morning radio show on Anchorage country radio station 104.1. I’ve been calling Matt on Tuesday mornings to talk about hunting stuff for a bit. While talking about ways to field dress and cook game birds, Matt asked if there were uses for the rest of the bird, such as feathers and bones.
I immediately thought of some beautiful earrings a talented local artist, who we’ve become friends with, makes with feathers from the various grouse and ptarmigan feathers we save from the birds. That barely scratches the surface of the possibilities.
Hunters make “fans” from the spread tail feathers of ruffed grouse for ornamental presentation on den walls and trophy rooms. Making a grouse tail fan is reasonably easy, and instructions are available with a quick internet search.
Since humans began walking upright, parts and pieces of the animals they took have been used for all sorts of things. Some, over time, have become illegal. Eagle, hawk and falcon feathers come to mind. They may be used only by members of federally registered tribes; the general public is not permitted to possess the feathers of these protected birds.
Once I was stopped by a National Forest Service officer while I was walking somewhere in Anchorage. He wanted to know where the feather in my cowboy hat came from. I showed him it was, in fact, a turkey feather, which looks a bit like an eagle feather, and we had a chuckle over it.
Some years ago, I had to stay at the hospital just long enough for people to send flowers. Well, I appreciated them but didn’t really put much stock in them until Christine showed up with a vase full of flowers that you might find in the wild, and amongst them were pheasant tail feathers. I still have the flowers, long since dried, and the pheasant feathers.
Small bones are used for needles, other bones are used for eating utensils and all sorts of tool handles. For the most part, necessity drove the creative mind to fashion useful items from what was available. That folks living on the edge of survival still made an effort to create beautiful things from what nature provided has always fascinated me.
While talking with Matt, I shared some childhood memories.
There wasn’t much money growing up farming and ranching in North Dakota in the 1960s, and youngsters had to figure out ways to earn extra. Being driven early in life, like a moth to a flame, to the hunting/shooting lifestyle, I looked for ways to earn money for extra ammunition. What better way than shooting, I found out.
In the 1960s, farmers’ and ranchers’ co-ops provided a “bounty” on gophers. The ones we had were called flicker tails and pocket gophers. All I had to do was shoot them or trap them, cut off their tail, and turn them in Saturday at the co-op office. I received a nickel for a flicker tail and 20 cents for a pocket gopher tail.
In those days, if memory serves me correctly, a box of .22 shells cost around 30 cents. So long as I didn’t miss, I had a huge profit margin. Of course I burned up the extra shooting tin cans and such, but I got to shoot a lot and hunt a lot, and life was pretty good.
After talking with Matt that morning, I received a bulk email message from the folks at Mepps, which had spoken to their squirrel tail buying program. They’ll buy squirrel tails for cash or trade fishing lures for them.
I first found out about this program many years ago, but not before I immersed myself in squirrel hunting the shelter-belts of North Dakota. While my biggest interests were hunting and shooting, I also enjoyed fishing. But at the time North Dakota wasn’t much of a fishing destination, and my fishing was mostly for bullheads using a hook and whatever hapless worms I could dig up.
In any event, the program has been around for a long time, accounting for some 8 million squirrel tails over the years, a great example of putting to use what otherwise would go to waste.
The history and the particulars can be found on the internet. It’s interesting, even if you don’t want to participate. Or maybe you have a squirrel you can tell the story to, in hopes of correcting bad behavior.
Steve Meyer is a longtime Alaskan and avid shooter who lives in Kenai.