A Small Thing But Maybe Not


All summer I raved and ranted at the squirrels that were eating the corn in my crib. I was particularly concerned because the drought seemed to be making sure this year’s crop was going to be a bust. I did not look forward to buying corn at drought-inflated prices just to keep squirrels fat eating my reserve supply. Eventually, we practically encased the whole crib in chicken wire. To no avail. Once a squirrel makes up its mind to get into something it will find a way even into a lead vault.

What is most infuriating about squirrels eating corn is how wasteful they are. They do not eat the whole kernel. They do not even eat half of it. They drill into the middle of the white heart of the kernel and with their incisor-like teeth extract a snippet hardly bigger than a flake of dandruff. Sitting on top of the ears of corn, they toss that kernel away like a drunk does an empty beer can, and snatch another off the cob. The wounded kernel then slips and slides down through the piled up ears of stored corn. Sometimes the wanton, fluffy-tailed rats jerk kernels from the cob and then drop them, eating nothing out of them at all. By summer’s end, the top layer of corn in the crib was only half-shelled cobs and the bottom layer mostly half eaten or whole kernels.

I realized on close examination that the half eaten kernels were really not even a third eaten and that there was still plenty of nutritive value left. I fed them to the chickens— at least I didn’t have to shell them off the cobs as I or the hens, usually do. The chickens ate the wounded kernels as well as they ate the whole ones and kept on laying eggs. Talk about a win-win situation. The squirrels got their fill and so did the hens.

There is, of course, another worry involved. Just why do the squirrels eat only the germ at the heart of the kernel and show little interest in the endosperm, bran, or the yellow hull of the kernel? If they are interested only in the germ, which makes up hardly a fourth of the kernel, of what nutritional value is the rest? Are the squirrels telling us something?

When cows and hogs eat corn, the yellow hull usually goes right through the animal and out the other end. The same happens when humans eat sweet corn. Clever humans answer this predicament by milling the corn to make it more “digestible.”  Out of curiosity, I once scooped up some hog manure and washed it through a screen. Sure enough the tiny yellow hull particles remained on the screen. They had passed through the animal’s gut as undigested as whole hulls.

Okay, all you nutritional experts out there. How correct am I when I say that at least half the gigantic, colossal crop of corn we produce yearly in this country might have little or no nutritional value. Maybe stoves burning corn to heat homes is the best way to use the stuff after all. Maybe ethanol is not such a bad idea. Or bourbon. Or how about turning to alternative grains that are far more nutritional and that can be grown, as Wes Jackson is doing on his Land Institute acres, as perennial crops not requiring annual cultivation at all?

Here’s the supreme irony. Right next to my chicken wire-encased corn crib full of squirrels, giant ragweed and lambsquarter grew up almost as high as the crib and loaded with seeds that science knows is more nutritious than corn. I didn’t see any squirrels eating the seeds, but the chickens sure did.


I was surprised not to read any mention of nixtamalization, a technical sounding term for a process thousands of years old whereby corn is soaked in lye and becomes a highly nutritious food source. Without such treatment a heavily corn based diet can cause pellegra, a dangerous vitamin deficiency disease, debilitating and can be fatal.

    Leon, One of the theories about why the Late Woodland native Americans (the moundbuilders) declined was that they came to rely too much on a corn diet and developed debilitating diseases from doing so. What you say could back that up. Gene

    Interesting and I do know that many farmers around my area used to soak the whole corn they fed their hogs in water for 24hrs before they fed it to the hogs and I don’t know if they added lye or or not but may have been.We used to mix milk and corn together and let it set for awhile before feeding it to the hogs per my Grandmother’s direction.I always say much farming knowledge has been lost as older people knew what worked even if they didn’t know the ‘scientific’ reason.

Two words Gene: Squirrel gravy!
The chickens love squirrel too. Slice them down the middle and let the chickens feast.

Somehow just now this line by John Muir came to mind as I was reading Gene’s post:

“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”

I don’t know about the corn deal but I do know that 2 corn fed squirrels in a crockpot with a can of mushroom soup,a can of golden mushroom soup and a bag of onion dip mix is about the best eating anywhere,almost as good as fried Snapping Turtle

“There is a mold endemic to all corn, even organic fresh corn from farmers’ markets. This black mold is called fumonisin: it is a mycotoxin derived from fusarium and it is extremely neurotoxic. You cannot get rid of this black mold. The only way you can destroy it is by burning the corn.” This quote is from page 39 of “10 Essentials to Save Your Sight,” a book by an ophthalmologist, Edward C. Kondrot, M.D. Of course, corn, like most grains and many other stored crops, such as peanuts, and sunflower seeds, can also contain other fungi, such as the one that produces aflatoxin, “any of a class of toxic compounds that are produced by certain molds found in food, and can cause liver damage and cancer.
[These are produced by fungi of the Aspergillus flavus group, subdivision Deuteromycotina.],” as found in Wikipedia, which didn’t have much about fusarium, & nothing about fumonisin. In general, think of too much moisture in any crop capable of supporting fungal growth, especially when stored. Thank you.

I used to measure grain moisture in corn at work and would put the leftover kernels on my windowsill. That was back when I had an office in a building whose windows would actually open – bliss! I noticed that the cardinals would only eat the germ, too. I figured birds need fat and protein and not carbohydrates (else why would they spend all their day eating bugs?). I noticed my body does better on less carbohydrates, too. I wonder when humans lost so much of their nutrition instinct…

Thanks for the lesson in squirrelology-I had no idea they were THAT smart!

karl francis kohler October 3, 2012 at 10:41 am

I will not grow corn. It is a useless crop and if you counted all the extra nutrients it takes to grow that big stock before you even get to the corn cob, and for so very little food value – it is dumb to be growing corn at all. I am up here in the north west and we are looking at native grain and plant species that have much better reward as food in relation to the amount of energy used by the plant, nutrients used from the soil, and soil health at the end of the season. I myself noted years ago that pigs passed corn – gave me a pause, and I too watched the squirrels Hmmm. So why is it we destroy our land value and turn over such huge areas to corn crop – it isnt food!

    Perhaps it is food, in moderation, as the Indians used it–or say like having eggplant for supper on occasion. But I agree,it is definitely not meant to be the “food” base for every human and animal diet!

This has me thinking about another question regarding plants and nutrition–do we need more Vitamin A in our diets in the fall? It seems all the late season vegetables are packed with Vitamin A–squash and pumpkins, greens, persimmons? Does anyone know?

First, if squirrels do not eat the bran, please try to change their diets so they don’t end up with colonorectal cancers.
Second, why not eat the squirrels?

Imagine questioning the actual food value of King Corn! If we don’t hear from you next week, we’ll know that Monsanto got hold of you.

Seriously though, over the past century the mechanized American farm and industrial food processing infrastructure has become almost totally committed to corn and a few other standard grains & vegetables. Production investments and consumption patterns are now so huge and habitualized that the nutritional qualities of the crops themselves are rarely examined.

At least the squirrels stay in your corn crib. At my house they eat our corn then try to break into the attic and turn it into a little love shack!

And we humans think we are smartest because we have the big brains — good example of the difference between quality and quantity, huh? I would agree that animals seem to go for the most nutritious part of whatever we feed them. My cows target the parts of the hay that has the most grain (we feed mixed oat/barley/wheat hay), then go back later and eat the stemmy parts. When I toss leftover food and veggie peelings to the chickens, the biggest fights are over the meat scraps. Still, I wouldn’t overlook the value of roughage, which corn hulls do provide for both people and critters.

That is a very interesting observation. I have also read about mice and potatoes. Apparently poorly nourished potatoes only pack certain minerals in the stem end, the other end being mostly starch. So mice only eat the stem ends of those potatoes, while they will eat from both ends of a well nourished potato. I think lots of animals have an innate wisdom that we could certainly learn from.

Mice do the same thing when they get into my purchased feed corn. The interesting thing is
that they eat the whole kernel when they get into my organically grown heirloom feed corn.

I really enjoy your posts. It seems like very few people take the time to observe what’s going on around them anymore, much less write about it.

Squirrels eating your corn, that’d teach you for not growing GM corn… 😉
My bet is they go for the germ because that’s where all the fat is, corn oil comes from the germs only, the rest is inedible indeed. Even traditional corn varieties used in Mexican food are not edible until you soak them in lime water.

It’s the season when squirrels need to build body fat to overwinter, and frankly, since they usually bury acorns and nuts in the ground, they probably think that a farmer who buries grain inside a silo is some kind of godsend giant squirrel who is just willing to share!


I have read that only the white part of the tip of the kernal is nutritious. It is what contains the protein. The yellow part contains the sweetness. Corn was bred to be sweeter and less nutritious.

After eating corn, I know the speed of my digestive tract is about 7 hours start to finish.

The time to get really worried is when the squirrels no longer come.

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