Small Game Management in Georgia

Gray and Fox Squirrels

The gray squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) andGray Squirrel the fox squirrel (Sciurus niger) are found throughout Georgia. The generic name, Sciurus, means "squirrel" in Latin and was derived from two Greek words, "skia" (shadow) and "oura" (tail). Taken literally, the name means "an animal that sits in the shadow of its tail," which both species can do.

The tail is a squirrel's most distinctive physical feature. It provides balance while running, jumping and climbing, and acts as a parachute to break an unexpected fall. It supplies warmth in cold weather and shade on sunny days. When rapidly flicked back and forth, the tail acts as a warning signal, or a decoy to distract enemies.

The gray squirrel is predominantly gray with white underparts. The fox squirrel has several color phases varying from silver-gray with a predominantly black head, to solid black, to a light buff or brown color tinged with reddish-yellow. Fox squirrels are larger than grays with some adults exceeding three pounds. Gray squirrels appear more slender-bodied with adults weighing 1-1 1/2 pounds.

It is hard to imagine any type of hunting more linked with American history and tradition than squirrel hunting. The famous Kentucky long rifle, developed in the early 1700's by German gunsmiths in Pennsylvania, was often referred to by many early pioneers as their "squirrel rifle." Superbly hand-made and extremely functional, the rifles were amazingly accurate in the hands of these early hunters.

Evidence of exactly how capable these master riflemen were was seen later that century when Pennsylvania placed a bounty of three pence each on the common bushytails. Many men simply quit work and went squirrel hunting, and within one year the Pennsylvania treasury was drained of eight thousand pounds sterling.

Until logging spelled their eventual demise in the early 1900's, the virgin forests of the east continued to support tremendous squirrel populations. Historical records state that as recently as 1901, market hunters were accounting for 50 or more squirrels in a single morning's hunt. Although the combination of cleared land and thinner woodlands drastically reduced squirrel numbers over the next half-century, the adaptable bushytail continued to be the most popular game animal across eastern rural America.

Over the last three decades, successful wildlife restoration efforts involving white-tailed deer and wild turkeys have dropped the squirrel from its top ranking in most states. By the late 1970's, more Georgia hunters were pursuing deer instead of squirrels.

Nevertheless, each fall as mornings turn cooler and hickory trees begin to yellow, many hunters across the Peach State return to their roots. For a number of Georgians, especially those raised in rural counties, squirrels often provide the very first hunting experience, and it is hard to break with tradition.

Still-hunting or slowly stalk hunting are the techniques most squirrel hunters prefer. However, in recent years the use of dogs has rapidly gained popularity.

What exactly is a squirrel dog? It is a dog, either purebred or crossbred, that works with its human handler to tree squirrels. Today, the most popular squirrel dogs are the cur and feist breeds which were specifically developed to be treeing dogs.

Squirrel dogs can display various hunting styles, some of which may be attributed to the specific breed, but most often is dependant on the personal preferences of its handler. Generally, the dogs range out on their own to hunt, but stay close enough to check back with their handlers at regular intervals. In this regard they are much easier to control than trail dogs involved with hunting other game species. Additionally, most squirrel dogs are silent while working a scent trail and bark only when a squirrel is treed.
     While it is possible to squirrel hunt with dogs anytime during the season, it is much more enjoyable, not to mention successful, to wait until late fall and winter when the leaves have fallen from the trees. Otherwise, the bushytails hide in the dense foliage and are nearly impossible to locate.

Another very important reason to wait is that most of Georgia's private woodlands are leased to deer hunting clubs, and it is difficult to gain access. In early January, after deer season closes, many of these same clubs will allow squirrel hunters permission to hunt the land.

In regard to public land, the state's Wildlife Management Areas (WMA) provide over a million acres of hunting opportunity. Squirrel hunting is allowed on these WMAs at specified times during the statewide squirrel season. Hunters should check the hunting regulations for specific WMAs and dates.

Today, squirrel hunting, with its strong traditional ties and its association with a way of life that unfortunately has nearly disappeared, is one of the brighter developments regarding the future outlook for small game hunting. Hopefully, this positive trend will continue.

Life History

Reproduction -  Squirrels normally have two distinct breeding periods in Georgia. The first occurs in December and early January followed by a second in June and early July. Females usually produce their first litter at one year of age. The gestation period for both species is approximately 45 days and litter sizes range from 1-5, with an average of three.

Gray and fox squirrels have two types of homes, dens and leaf nests. Dens are located in tree cavities and usually are filled with leaves and bark. Den trees usually are large, mature hardwoods having cavities formed from weather or insect damage. Leaf nests are located in the forks of limbs or built around several intertwining branches. They consist of a rough twig framework, approximately 15-25 inches across, interlaced with layers of leaves. The inside cavity is 10-12 inches in diameter and is accessed through a hole in the side of the nest. Squirrels gather nest material from the tree in which the nest is located. Leaf nests can be constructed in less than 12 hours and last for several months. One squirrel may build many different nests during the year.

Den trees are more secure than leaf nests for raising young and are preferred by gray squirrels. Fox squirrels, on the other hand, frequently raise their young in leaf nests. Most nests are in the upper 40 percent of the tree with adult females usually occupying the highest nests.

Young squirrels are born hairless with their eyes closed. At three weeks of age their bodies are covered with short hair, and their eyes open a week or two later. The young begin to venture out of the nest or den at six weeks and are half-grown at eight weeks. Mother squirrels raise their young alone and aggressively defend the nest tree. Good parental care results in high survival rates for the young when compared to other small game species.

Mortality -  Life expectancy of squirrels in the wild is 1-2 years with about 50 percent of the population lost to predation, accidents and disease. Hunting has little impact on squirrel populations, except on small woodlots that are heavily hunted. Annual harvest rates are normally 10-20 percent of the population.

Many predators, including hawks, owls, bobcats, coyotes and rattlesnakes, eat squirrels. These losses are normal and usually are offset by reproduction each year. Squirrels have few serious parasites or diseases. Mites, ticks, fleas, roundworms and tapeworms sometimes infest squirrels, but seldom cause serious problems. Occasionally, an outbreak of mange or scabies (a severe skin condition caused by mites) results in mortality.

During September and October, squirrels often are infested with botfly larvae, sometimes called warbles or "wolves." These larvae develop under the squirrel's skin, similar to the warbles described in the chapter on rabbits. Although these warbles are not fatal to the squirrel or harmful to the hunter, the ugly lesions prompt many hunters to discard infested squirrels. The discarding of warble infested squirrels is unfortunate. Even though these lesions are unsightly, the squirrel's meat is quite edible. By late October, most warbles have left their host.

Food Habits -  An adult squirrel consumes about two pounds of food each week. Food preferences are similar for both gray and fox squirrels. However, types of food are extremely variable depending on locale, abundance and availability. Major fall foods include "mast" or nut crops (acorns, hickory nuts, beech nuts, pecans and walnuts), pine seed and the fleshy fruits of dogwood and blackgum. Spring and summer foods include buds, seeds, flowers of elm, maple, poplar, hophornbeam and other trees and shrubs. Squirrels also eat mushrooms and a variety of fruits including mulberries, wild cherries, blackberries and wild grapes. Animal foods, mainly insect larvae and bird eggs, occasionally are eaten. Squirrels are quick to take advantage of agricultural crops when available, especially corn, peanuts and sunflowers. Pecan orchards are favorite places for squirrels in late summer and early fall. Squirrels do not require open water but obtain the moisture they need from their diet, dew and rain.

Squirrel populations vary between years and depend on food availability.  Populations are influenced strongly by the fall mast crop. When there is good mast production, squirrels enter the following spring and summer breeding seasons in excellent condition and produce more and healthier young. Following a poor mast year some females only have one litter, and many one year-old females will not produce young.

Behavior and Movement Patterns -  Fox squirrels have larger home ranges than gray squirrels and males of both species have larger home ranges than females, especially during the breeding season. Although fox squirrels can move over one mile in a day, both species typically use less than five acres surrounding the den tree. Habitat use is influenced by food availability and changes in behavior during the breeding season. The total area used during the year is usually less than 30 acres.

Besides mast production, gray squirrel densities are influenced by the availability of tree cavities for dens. Seasonal changes occur as squirrels respond to the availability of preferred foods. Pecan orchards attract many squirrels from surrounding woods. When hardwood mast is scarce, squirrels spend more time in adjacent pine woodlands eating pine seed. These movements give the appearance of abundance in some areas and scarcity in adjacent habitats.

Neither species of squirrel hibernates. However, during high winds, heavy rains or extreme cold, they seldom leave their den or nest. Both gray and fox squirrels have major activity peaks during the morning and afternoon hours. Gray squirrels are generally more active early and late, while fox squirrels often move during the middle of the day.

Although fox and gray squirrels are considered tree dwellers, both spend a considerable amount of time on the ground foraging for food. Fox squirrels readily venture into open agricultural fields and pastures. Grays seldom travel through large open areas, preferring to stay along the woods borders near the protection of trees.

Habitat Requirements -  Although fox and gray squirrel habitats overlap, better gray squirrel habitat is found in mature hardwoods having a well-developed hardwood midstory with associated vines. This type of habitat is typical of hardwood forests where fire has been excluded. Gray squirrels also use pine-hardwood forests, but only the borders of pine plantations. Tree cavities for dens are essential for good gray squirrel habitat.

Fox squirrels prefer open forests without a hardwood midstory. Fox squirrel habitat includes mature upland pine and pine-hardwood forests that have been burned periodically. They use edges of forests and open lands and will feed in large pastures or fields hundreds of yards from the nearest tree. Another favorite habitat of fox squirrels is mature longleaf pines with an open wiregrass understory.

Management

Squirrel management often conflicts with modern timber management practices. Squirrel populations are extremely low in large tracts of even-aged pines managed on a short rotation. Squirrels need mast-producing hardwoods for food and cavity trees for den sites, and pine plantations lack these habitat components.

Although short rotation pine plantations are not desirable for squirrels, modifications to this management can improve squirrel habitat.

To enhance pine stands for squirrels, landowners should:

  • Leave hardwood corridors along streamsides and in drainages unsuitable for pines. Leave strips of hardwoods between pine stands.
  • Clearcuts should be 50 acres or less.
  • Protect large mast producing hardwoods and den trees within pine regeneration areas.
  • Combine prescribed burning with thinning in pine stands to create and maintain an open understory. The resulting habitat is desirable for fox squirrels.
  • During controlled burns, protect adjacent hardwood trees and shrubs, including food producers such as dogwood, blackgum, oak, hickory, beech and other mast trees.

Within hardwood stands landowners should:

  • Exclude fire from existing hardwood timber.
  • When harvesting hardwoods, leave at least one den tree (cavity tree) and five mast trees per acre. These are minimum requirements. Not every mast tree will produce each year, so the more nut producing trees that are left, the better.
  • Thin young hardwood stands to favor mast trees and promote faster growth and crown development.
  • Protect understory trees, shrubs, and vines. Many of these understory plants produce important food for squirrels.
  • Fertilize hardwoods to enhance mast production.

In areas lacking adequate den trees, artificial nest boxes provide secure den locations and improve gray squirrel production. A nest box should be two feet deep, 8-10 inches square, with an entrance hole three inches in diameter. Many companies that produce bird houses also offer squirrel boxes.

Supplemental feeding is not practical for squirrels. However, both species will use small strips or patches of corn when they are planted along woods borders.

Squirrels often are unwanted guests at backyard bird feeders. An inverted metal, cone-shaped collar placed 4-5 feet from the base of the feeder or adjacent trees can prevent squirrels from climbing onto feeders.

The most important habitat components to provide for gray squirrels are mature, mast-producing hardwoods and large cavity-producing trees. Fox squirrel habitat includes mature, open pine forests having a variety of mast-producing trees. Most oaks and hickories require over 40 years to reach optimum mast production and cavity development. Forest management decisions, once carried out, are not quickly changed and have long-term impacts on squirrels. It is important for landowners to wisely manage their forests if the continued benefit of squirrels and other hardwood dependent wildl






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