A fox squirrel relishes a nut while sitting on a branch. Photo courtesy of Dan Stephens.
Illinois Squirrel Season—Coming to a Forest Near You
It has often been said, “the secret to happiness is to have someone to love, something to do, and something to look forward to.” While I can’t help you find love, I can certainly offer something to do and something to look forward to. As the long days of summer come to an end, there is one activity that kicks off the hunting season for me: squirrel hunting.
Even though squirrel is considered by many to be delicious (one of my close hunting buddies would choose squirrel over venison), enjoyable to hunt, and surprisingly challenging, squirrel hunting has become an under-utilized resource by many hunters. Hunters may view squirrel hunting as an activity for young or novice hunters, however, squirrel hunting is a great opportunity to get afield and obtain a unique and tasty source of wild game and can be quite challenging. One of the more interesting aspects of squirrel meat is that it’s not quite white meat and not quite dark meat. Instead, it is very similar to that of a chicken thigh. Substituting chicken for squirrel in many of your favorite recipes is an excellent use of the meat.
Squirrel has one of the longest hunting seasons in Illinois, running from August 1 to February 15 annually, although some Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) public sites have further restrictions that may reduce the length of the squirrel season at a particular site. Consult the IDNR Hunter Fact Sheets and the Illinois Digest of Hunting and Trapping Regulations for more information about site-specific and other regulations.
Squirrel Ecology and Behavior
In Illinois, three species of diurnal (daylight active) tree squirrels can be found: fox squirrel, gray squirrel, and the red squirrel, however, only the gray squirrel and fox squirrel can be harvested as red squirrels are protected. Fox squirrels are the largest tree squirrel in Illinois (can weigh 2 pounds) with a mix of rusty-yellow to orange fur giving an overall reddish cast. The eastern gray squirrel is gray on the back with white or light gray on the belly weighing an average of 1.25 pounds. It is uncommon, but gray squirrels can appear all black (melanistic).
Red squirrels are much smaller and are typically only found in the northeastern portion of the state (along the Kankakee and Iroquois rivers). Another species of squirrel to note is one that you are likely not going to come across while hunting, the flying squirrel. The smallest of Illinois’ tree squirrels, the flying squirrel has folds of skin on either side of the body that allow it to glide. Not only are these squirrels extremely small, but they are also nocturnal. Flying squirrels cannot be harvested.
Squirrels are arboreal mammals that are classified alongside rodents and have two distinct breeding seasons (winter and late spring) with an average litter size ranging from two to four young. Cavities in trees are their preferred nesting site but in locations without suitable trees, squirrels will create nests out of leaves and other fallen vegetation referred to as dreys. These dreys have a unique structure and size to them that makes them readily identifiable from other nests that you are likely to come across.
Squirrel abundance is a product of suitable habitat and food/resource availability. Typically, squirrels are found in forested areas with dense stands of mast-bearing trees (oak, hickory or beech trees) as these areas provide an abundance of food for squirrels: nuts. Instinctively, squirrels know that food will become scarce throughout winter, so collecting and caching is an important activity to ensure an adequate supply of food throughout winter. Squirrels have also taken to the old adage “don’t put all your eggs in one basket” and are classified as scatter hoarders. This scattering process ensures an entire winter-supply isn’t damaged by weather events or consumed by other wildlife. Commonly, squirrels will cache by burying nuts about an inch under the soil near their den/nesting site. They are also known to crack and damage nuts before burying to ensure the seed doesn’t germinate and begin sprouting a new tree.
Due to the crepuscular nature of squirrels (active at dawn and dusk), the most effective time for scouting and hunting is in the first few hours of the day and the last few hours. As squirrels are primarily nut eaters, identifying and locating dense and diverse stands of mast-bearing trees (oak, hickory and beech) is crucial. A telltale sign of squirrel activity is to look for evidence of caching and feeding. In many cases, these areas will be riddled with hickory nuts and acorns covered in toothmarks scattered about the forest floor. Another important sign to look for while scouting is the presence of dreys (nesting structure composed of leaves and other plant material). I should re-emphasize that gray and fox squirrels are primarily cavity nesters and create dreys if suitable cavities are not available, so the lack of dreys in an area doesn’t necessarily mean squirrels are not present. However, if you are in an area with multiple visible dreys, you are likely in a great and active location.
Hunting squirrels can be as simple as being in the right place at the right time. However, there are a few strategic principles to keep in mind while thinking about squirrel hunting.
- Play the weather. Squirrels rely on sight and hearing to detect predators. Windy days reduces the squirrel’s ability to see and/or hear predators as everything else is in constant motion. Hunting calm days or finding sheltered locations from the wind (e.g., valley, backside of a ridge) can be of great advantage. Rain, ice and snow may reduce activity while branches are wet and slick.
- Hunt early or late. While squirrels are a diurnal (daylight active) species, they are most active in the first few hours of the day and the last few hours (crepuscular).
- Be mobile. Much of squirrel hunting is in sharp contrast to deer hunting. Primarily when deer hunting you are in a chosen location for the totality of the hunt. To hunt squirrels, being mobile is critical. Sit in a suitable location for 15 to 20 minutes, then if there is no activity, move to another. If you take a shot, sit another 15 to 20 minutes for the woods to calm down and see if activity picks back up. Often it does. Many hunters term this style of hunting “still hunting.” Some hunters will employ a tactic referred to as spot and stalk hunting. For this, walk through suitable habitat at a very slow and quiet pace. Listening and keeping an eye out for squirrels. When you spot a squirrel, make your approach to get into your effective range.
- Use your ears. Arguably, one of the more impactful strategies for squirrel hunting is to simply listen. Listen for the claws of squirrels as they run up a tree, scurry in the leaves looking for nuts, or the telltale sign of a squirrel eating, a sound many hunters call “cutting.” Hearing is particularly useful in the early season as squirrels are difficult to see through the leaves still present on trees.
- Hunt with a partner. Hunting in a group or with a partner can really increase your success while squirrel hunting. Not only does this give you another set of eyes and ears but allows you to strategically approach a squirrel that may have escaped up a tree. Squirrels will comically circle around the tree to avoid being seen. Having a partner on the other side of the tree ensures the squirrel can’t continually play ring-around-the-oak-tree and will offer you or your partner a shot opportunity. Ensure you know where your partner is always and that you have a safe line of fire.
While there are a lot more nuanced techniques and strategies to share about squirrel hunting, I want to leave you with one final strategy: just go! With liberal season dates, abundant populations, and a relatively low barrier to entry (very little equipment is required) give it a try. If anything else, it gives you an excuse to scout for the upcoming deer season, find late summer mushrooms, and who knows, maybe you’ll find a new passion and join my hunting buddy as someone who prefers squirrel meat over all else. I’ll leave you with one of my easiest go-to recipes, just in case.
Dan Stephens is a Hunter Recruitment Specialist with the Illinois Natural History Survey. The Illinois Learn to Hunt program is a statewide program designed to teach adults (18+) why, where and how to hunt a variety of species in Illinois. Visit Illinois Learn to Hunt for more information or to sign-up for an event near you.