Plentiful Opportunities: Squirrel Ecology, Hunting, and Cooking
I wrote this piece as a Conservation Contributor with Hunt To Eat. It was originally published on the Hunt To Eat blog.
Squirrel hunting might be where small game meets big game hunting. Squirrels have a fascinating ecology, offer amazing hunting opportunities, and make delicious table fare. I can remember occasions while hunting whitetail deer when I chose to swap out my deer rifle for a .22 and switch my deer hunt into a squirrel hunt. Squirrels are just that charismatic and squirrel hunting is just that fun.
The more I get into squirrel hunting, the more I find there is a large community of similarly minded squirrel devotees. Hunt To Eat’s own Cindy Stites is on record saying that squirrel hunting is her favourite type of hunting.
Squirrels are sometimes caught in the unfortunate social-cultural dilemma where their proliferation in urban centres has them seen merely as pests. It is important for us to remember that squirrels are wildlife with a rich evolutionary history. Their interaction with urban expansion is a reflection of their ability for adaptation and should have no impact on their value as a diverse and wonderful group of species.
My experience has been that squirrel hunters have great fondness and appreciation for squirrels. I have also found that everyone I have served squirrel to has come away from the meal delighted by the amazing texture, tenderness, and flavour of the meat. I want to contribute to a situation where, collectively, we see squirrels as a species worthy of our respect for their place on the landscape.
An Older-Than-Ice-Age Ecology
People often refer to squirrels as rodents. In my experience, referring to a species as a rodent is not usually intended as a compliment. However, as with many wildlife issues, it is difficult to care about something we do not understand. As hunters and conservationists, we work to connect people to public land, waters, and species at risk because we know that personal connection is often a precursor to caring about something, and caring about that thing is usually a prerequisite for taking action. I think the same is true with Rodentia, the group of species scientifically classified as rodents.
In her book, Two in the Far North, Margaret “Mardy” Murie, called the Grandmother of the Conservation Movement, describes studying mice and voles in Alaska in the 1920s. She recalls, “I had never known there were so many kinds of mice; I had known only the kitchen-cupboard ones. Nor had I known that these were true wild animals, which ranged throughout the wilderness and belonged there…”
When someone calls a squirrel a rodent, I think this often reveals a misconception that rodents are simple, crude animals that lack diversity or value. This is quite incorrect.
To appreciate the wonderful variety and complexity of rodents, it is helpful to look at taxonomy, the scientific system used to classify organisms. Taxonomy classifies all organisms from broad (e.g., plant or animal) to increasingly specific levels (e.g., human or squirrel). Typically, taxonomy classifies organisms on seven levels. Taxonomically, “rodent” refers to an order called Rodentia, which is right in the middle of those seven levels. To put all of this in perspective, whitetail deer are a member of an order called Artiodactyla. Other species in the Artiodactyla order include giraffes and killer whales. Therefore, the term “rodent” refers to a group of species so diverse that, at that same taxonomic level, deer are related to giraffes and killer whales.
In other words, rodents are not a simple group of species; in fact, they are the most diverse group of mammals on the planet.
As a broad and common term, “squirrel” refers to many different groups of species. These include groundhogs, prairie dogs, and the bushy-tailed groups of tree squirrels we typically consider in a hunting context. In fact, “bushy tails”, the common nickname for squirrels, has a historical connection to the Latin word used by Carl Linnaeus in 1758 to name squirrels, Sciurus, which means “shadow-tailed.”
Squirrels are not a new species. We often talk about North American human hunting culture originating during the Pleistocene, roughly 12,000 years ago, at the end of the last Ice Age. Similarly, we also think about the wildlife that roamed North America at that time as connected to human hunting, including mammoths and various ungulate species such as elk. In a paper titled Phylogeny and Zoogeography of Six Squirrel Species of the Genus Sciurus (Mammalia, Rodentia), Inferred from Cytochrome b Gene Sequences, published by the Zoological Society of Japan, researchers at Hokkaido University investigated the evolutionary history of squirrel species throughout the world. They report that genetics reveal close relationships between the North American Sciurus species they studied and even a close relationship with a South American species. Further, North American Sciurus species likely emerged and radiated across the continent approximately 9.8 – 14.4 million years ago during the Miocene.
Humans may have been hunting and refining recipes for squirrels for much longer than we have for mammoths and elk.
North American Squirrel Hunting
The brief primer on squirrel taxonomy is helpful to categorize squirrel hunting. Now, there are numerous other genera of squirrels besides Sciurus, but in terms of hunting, most of the species we pursue are part of this genus. The genus Sciurus globally contains 27 species that live on every continent except Australia and Antarctica.
In Canada and the United States, there are numerous species of huntable squirrels. The three most common and wide-ranging species are:
- Eastern gray squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis)
- Western gray squirrel (Sciurus griseus)
- Eastern fox squirrel (Sciurus niger)
There is also the Abert’s squirrel (Sciurus aberti), named for John James Abert, a U.S. soldier who mapped part of the American West; Arizona gray squirrel (Sciurus arizonensis); Mexican fox squirrel (Sciurus nayaritensis), and a number of others found in smaller, more localized ranges. Most hunters don’t pursue the three species of red squirrels in the genus Tamiasciurus (also known as pine squirrels) because they are too small or, in some cases, are classified as furbearers and can only legally be trapped.
What about black squirrels? Black squirrels are usually eastern gray squirrels in what is known as a melanistic phase. The melanism is caused by a particular gene expression (known as an allele) that, as it turns out, is the identical gene to the one that causes fox squirrels to have black fur. Researchers have found that the allele causing black fur likely spread from fox squirrels to gray squirrels through interbreeding and stuck around in both species because it offered some advantage (such as heat retention).
In terms of hunting, black squirrels are the same species as fox and eastern gray squirrels and there is no inherent difference in meat or flavour.
Hunting Opportunities and Strategies
Squirrel hunting is a great way to introduce new hunters and youth to hunting. It allows for a lot of interaction between a mentor and a mentee. Squirrel hunting offers a variety of strategies and opportunities based on season, age, skill level, and interest. It allows hunters to develop and refine hunting skills that can translate to many other types of both small and big game hunting. Squirrel hunting also usually offers long seasons with generous bag limits, allowing hunters to enjoy being outside and gathering food after filling precious big game tags.
In the fall, squirrels tend to be most active in the morning and evening. I find that the forest really gets squirrely shortly after sunrise with activity calming down around late morning. Generally, I like to be in the woods just before sunrise so that the forest has time to calm down and return to normal rhythms by sunrise, after any disturbance I caused walking in.
Squirrels have an amazing ability to climb up a tree and hide by staying on the opposite side of the tree trunk from you. Alternatively, they will hide in the crotch formed where a tree limb attaches to the tree trunk, or they will go out onto a fat limb and lay flat to hide. Be patient, scan the trees with binoculars, and watch for movement of tails or fur blowing in the breeze or the reflection of sunlight off fur. As with any hunt, it is important to only shoot when you have a clear shot at vitals. You don’t want to risk shooting a squirrel on a tree limb and not having it fall to the ground. If a squirrel takes off up a tree, sit tight and wait; see if it comes back out to give you a shot.
I will briefly go through my two favourite ways to squirrel hunt, but these are certainly not the only ways, and you can pick them apart and combine strategies depending on species behaviour, habitat, terrain, and your interests.
If I am alone, I typically like to hunt squirrels with a .22 long rifle, using a combination of spot and stalk and ambush hunting. This approach works best in mixed hardwoods (e.g., oak, beech) later in the fall as the deciduous trees begin to lose their leaves, allowing you to see higher into the canopy. I will stand or sit quietly against a tree and listen and watch until I spot a squirrel. If the squirrel is moving toward me, I can just sit and wait until it is in range for a shot.
If the squirrel is in a tree or too far for a shot, I like to position a large tree between myself and the squirrel so that we are both out of sight of each other. I’ll move quietly closer, keeping the main tree between us. There is really no reason to peek around the tree at this point because if the squirrel moves, I will see it come out from behind the tree, at which point I will reposition myself with another tree between us.
Once I get up to the tree I’m using for cover, I will slowly look around it and re-spot the squirrel. Move slowly as you would any other stalking situation. I like to use the tree as a gun rest, bracing my hand against the forestock and tree. With a .22, aim right at the back of the skull to minimize meat damage.
Hunting with a Partner (or Mentee)
I also enjoy squirrel hunting because it offers opportunities for socializing with hunting partners. While you don’t want to go smashing through the forest at full volume, it is a type of hunting that still allows for some interaction and laughs.
If I am hunting with another person, we like to have one of us carrying a .22 rifle and the other carrying a shotgun with small game shot. This way, we can shoot from farther away using a rifle as described above or react more quickly and shoot squirrels that are closer or on the move with a shotgun. This strategy also works well earlier in the season, when deciduous trees still have some leaves or when hunting in conifers with needles.
Typically, we will start by walking along the edges of habitats, such as places where fields meet forests. We will also walk trails that offer some openings in the forests to increase the distance we can see and allows for opportunities to catch squirrels running across the trails. Finally, we will also sometimes split up and each cut two halves of a circle around an area of promising habitat, similar to a deer drive, hoping to bump squirrels in the direction of the other person to give them a shot.
Squirrel meat is some of the most tender game meat I have ever tasted. It is light and with the perfect amount of fat and oil to keep it from drying out in cooking. As with anything, there are many different ways to cook and enjoy squirrels.
My favourite way to cook squirrel is breaded and fried.
To cook squirrels this way, I butcher them much the same way I would a big game animal, quartering the four legs and then leaving the torso whole and trimming off the short rib meat to cook separately. I like to soak all the pieces in coconut milk for 20-30 minutes. While the pieces are soaking, I make the breading mixture in a bowl using some flour, salt, pepper, and seasonings. I like to use Cajun spice, but you can use whatever flavour you like.
I take the pieces out of the coconut milk and put them right into the breading mixture, covering the bowl and lightly tossing all the pieces in the flour. Then I heat some oil in a cast-iron skillet (I like to use an oil with a higher smoke point, such as avocado, canola, or peanut oil). I don’t fully submerge the squirrel pieces, but rather shallow-fry each piece so the oil only comes up about halfway on the meat.
Be sure not to crowd the pan, as this will quickly cool down the oil, and you may end up with a soggy, greasy mess. Lay a couple of pieces into the oil and let it fry for a minute or two until crispy, then turn over and fry until crispy. It doesn’t take too long to cook, so don’t overcook it. Take the pieces out and lay them on a plate with some paper towel to soak up excess oil.
I have turned many people on to squirrel meat cooking and serving it this way. The meat just slides off the bone in tender, flaky, bite-size pieces.
Squirrels are an important part of their ecosystems. They form a key prey species to other predators, such as birds of prey. Their evolutionary story is long and intricate. Squirrels are also fun to watch in the woods, giving us another opportunity to observe the mechanics of the natural world and watch how species interact with their habitats.
Squirrels provide a wonderful hunting opportunity to both new and seasoned hunters. They’re a great introductory animal and hunting them allows you to learn skills that may be applied to all kinds of big game and small game hunting. Squirrel hunting can be a more social activity than big game hunting, but it provides an opportunity to practice some of the same skills, including looking for sign, stalking, calling, and both precision and shotgun shooting.
One of my goals in exploring new hunting opportunities, talking about hunting, and introducing new hunters to the activity is always to foster an increased appreciation and respect for wildlife. In my opinion, squirrels are not given the admiration they deserve, so by understanding their ecology, I hope we can value their place and role on the landscape. Finally, I have watched friends as they take a bite of squirrel meat and have seen their faces light up with an appreciation for the quality of such an accessible and delicious rodent.
In Two in the Far North, Mardy Murie continues, “I learned that to the scientist these little creatures are interesting and important, for they have a relationship to bigger creatures and to the land and are part of the great chain of life”. To the scientist, we might also add the hunter.