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Art Lander’s Outdoors: Squirrel season, the first on Kentucky’s fall hunting calendar, opens Aug. 20

Kentucky’s fall squirrel season, a 191-day split season that kicks off the calendar of fall hunting, opens by regulation on the third Saturday each August.

The 2022-2023 season dates are Saturday, Aug. 20 through Nov. 11. Then the season re-opens Nov. 14, and runs through Feb. 28, 2023.

.22 rifles, small-gauge shotguns and small-caliber muzzleloading rifles are good choices for squirrel hunting (Photo by Art Lander Jr.)

The daily bag limit is six squirrels.

Cody M. Rhoden, Small Game Program Coordinator for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources (KDFWR) wrote in the 2021-2022 Squirrel Report that “we expect to see a good 2022-23 hunting season.”

Last winter’s weather was favorable, and statewide mast production in 2021 for the three primary mast-producing tree groups (hickories, red oaks, and white oaks) was average, but in the eastern region hickory and beech mast production was good.

There’s a close relationship between a year’s nut production and the following year’s squirrel population levels.

The statewide mast production survey was initiated in 1953 and is conducted annually in August. Mast crops are rated based on the percentage of trees surveyed bearing nuts: 0 percent,failure; 20 percent, poor; 40 percent, average; 60 percent, good, and 80 percent, bumper crop.

White Oak acorns (Photo from Flickr Commons)

In the fall of 2021, 43 percent of the white oak trees surveyed had acorns. That is important to note since white oak acorns are a preferred food of forest wildlife.

Biologists walk the same route every year, and estimate the year’s mast crop, based on what they observe. After this information is compiled there’s a clearer picture of what the impact will be, not only on squirrels, but other forest wildlife — white-tailed deer, wild turkeys, and black bear.

Weather extremes, such as late frosts and heavy rains in spring, and summer droughts, can limit the amount and quality of mast.

Hickory nuts begin to mature in August, and acorns and beechnuts in September and October. Late winter is the time when food availability becomes most critical to squirrels, and can impact their body condition heading into the breeding season.

Art Lander Jr. is outdoors editor for the Northern Kentucky Tribune. He is a native Kentuckian, a graduate of Western Kentucky University and a life-long hunter, angler, gardener and nature enthusiast. He has worked as a newspaper columnist, magazine journalist and author and is a former staff writer for Kentucky Afield Magazine, editor of the annual Kentucky Hunting & Trapping Guide and Kentucky Spring Hunting Guide, and co-writer of the Kentucky Afield Outdoors newspaper column.

Squirrel hunters can help management efforts by taking part in the Squirrel Hunting Cooperator Survey. The voluntary program, which started in 1995, supplies information that biologists use to monitor squirrel population trends in Kentucky.

Hunters record information about their hunts as the season progresses, including the county hunted, hours afield, number and species of squirrels seen and harvested, number of hunters in the party, and number of dogs used to find squirrels.

When hunters are finished hunting for the season they mail their surveys back to KDFWR.

After the survey information is compiled and analyzed, a report is mailed out to squirrel hunters who shared the details of their hunting activities from the previous season.

Squirrel Hunting Cooperator Survey Results

Some highlights from the 2021-2022 squirrel season survey include:

• The survey detailed 391 hunts in 41 Kentucky counties.
• Hunters spent a total of 902 hours afield, for an average of 10.9 hunts per cooperator.
• 28.6 percent of cooperators said they hunted with dogs.
• Hunters reported that they saw an average of five squirrels per hunt, and the total squirrel harvest for the season was 721 gray squirrels and 117 fox squirrels.

Differences in Gray Squirrels and Fox Squirrels

• The Eastern Gray Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) may be the most abundant, widely-distributed game animal in Kentucky.

They make their homes in leaf nests and the cavities of large trees, in a wide range of rural and urban environments. This includes remote forests of mountainous eastern Kentucky, farm woodlands, big river bottoms, and along small streams all across the state.

Gray squirrel (Photo from Wikipedia Commons)

Gray squirrels are rather small. Their head and body length varies from about nine to 11 inches, their tails adding another seven to 10 inches. Adults can weigh up to 21 ounces.

They do not display sexual dimorphism — there is no difference in size or coloration between males and females.

They have predominantly gray, brownish fur, with a white underside.

Like all squirrels, the gray squirrel has four toes on its front feet and five toes on its hind feet. They hop and jump through the woods, with a bounding stride of two to three feet long. They are strong tree climbers and can descend a tree head first.

Like deer, gray squirrels are crepuscular — more active during the early and late hours of the day.

Visible year round in Kentucky, gray squirrels do not hibernate. The gray squirrel is the dominant species in the heavily-forested eastern third of Kentucky.

• The Northern Fox Squirrel (Sciurus niger) is a grizzled salt and pepper gray with a yellow to orange upper body, a pale yellow to bright orange chest and belly, and yellow tipped tail hairs.

Fox Squirrel (Photo by Gary Eslinger, US Fish and Wildlife Service)

Adults are typically 18 to 27 inches long, head to tail, and weigh 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 pounds. There is a higher percentage of fox squirrels in the small woodlots and wooded fencerows of agricultural areas in Central and Western Kentucky.

Squirrels usually breed twice a year; summer and winter. A litter of usually three to four young are born 40 to 45 days later. The young are reared in the nest, and then go out on their own at about two months of age. Some females may produce litters during both breeding seasons.

The squirrels diet include nuts, twigs, buds, and fruits of the trees, although they also eat bird nestlings and insects. They are hoarders, gathering up nuts and stashing them away in what is called a cache.

Over the years both gray and fox squirrel numbers have remained fairly stable in Kentucky

Hunting squirrels is a good way to mentor youth or anyone new to hunting, while teaching gun safety and marksmanship.

When you show them how to walk quietly through the woods, be observant and blend in with the trees and shadows while hunting squirrels, you pass on Kentucky’s proud hunting heritage.

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