Good reasons abound for the return of squirrel hunting in Pennsylvania
Gray squirrels are prolific, abundant and provide lots of shooting action for hunters who know where to find them.
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Rifle deer season is done, and many Pennsylvania hunters will hang the fluorescent orange cap in the closet until next fall.
But it didn't used to be that way. As recently as the 1980s, hunters routinely took advantage of the state's long menu of hunting opportunities. Before putting beginners in a deer stand, veteran hunters handed them a shotgun or rim-fire rifle and took them in search of mourning doves, groundhogs and small game. From an educational standpoint, it was logical.
"It is important to remember that small game hunting used to be viewed as a rite of passage before participating in big game seasons," said Game Commission spokesman Jerry Feaser. "Small game hunting teaches patience, and requires the hunter to read habitat and look for sign. Hunting and firearm safety also are important for small game."
For lots of reasons -- wildlife management, inexpensive ammunition, another good excuse to get outside -- it would be smart for Pennsylvania hunters to reacquaint themselves with the squirrel. The season reopens Monday through Dec. 24 and Dec. 26 through Feb. 23. The daily limit is six combined species (gray squirrel, fox squirrel, red or pine squirrel).
"Gray squirrels are our most abundant game species and are found throughout Pennsylvania," said Game Commission biologist Tom Hardisky.
To some extent, a decline in the popularity of squirrel hunting led to a population spike among squirrels. Pennsylvania squirrel hunters plummeted from 615,000 in 1983 to 150,000 in 2009. According to the Game Commission's annual hunter survey, the squirrel harvest during those years dropped from 2.2 million to 635,000. It's remained relatively steady since -- last year an estimated 690,141 squirrels were harvested by hunters.
The decline in hunting pressure and maturation of mast-producing trees has led squirrel populations to rise across the state, and fox squirrels have recovered from a loss of habitat and expanded their range.
While deer hunters might be lucky to get off a couple of shots per year, hunters who know where to find squirrels get lots of action, explore multiple techniques and strategies, and sharpen hunting skills they'll rely on come the Monday after Thanksgiving.
"Look for mast-producing trees such as walnut, butternut, oak and hickory when searching for the best hunting areas," said Hardisky. "In agricultural areas, woodlots in the vicinity of standing cornfields often support large numbers of squirrels. They can be found throughout deep woods areas."
No need to drive long distances. Squirrels are chattering in a tree near you. Look for trees with large trunks near a food source -- bigger trees offer better protection from predators and are favored as den sites.
Gray squirrels generally weigh over 1 pound and average less than 20 inches. Black squirrels are a color variation of the same species. While some grays have red-tinted sides, they do not interbreed with other squirrel species. The gray squirrel is most active during the early morning and evening, while its cousin, the fox squirrel, is active mid-day.
"Fox squirrels are up to 50 percent larger than gray squirrels and weigh about 2 pounds," said Hardisky. "Fox squirrels have been expanding their range eastward in recent years and now inhabit much of the western half of Pennsylvania. They prefer more open areas than gray squirrels and are not found in the deep woods. Fox squirrels favor open fields and pastures with large trees nearby. Small woodlots and forest edges are typical fox squirrel haunts."
A little larger than a chipmunk, the red squirrel belies its diminutive size with a nasty, aggressive attitude and is more vocal than the gray and fox squirrel.
In a small isolated woodlot, squirrels could be hunted out through extreme and prolonged hunting pressure, but that rarely happens. At 14 months old during favorable food conditions, prolific gray and fox squirrels can bear two litters of two to three young each year. One litter is common when food is hard to find.
First Published December 9, 2012 12:00 am