Squirrel Hunting with an Air Rifle

By Diliff (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)], via Wikimedia CommonsIt is ironic that many hunters learn how to hunt by taking squirrels with air rifles but then feel the need to “grow up” and pass them over for conventional firearms. The truth is that squirrel hunting with an air rifle is not only one of the safest ways to hunt squirrels, but arguably one of the most rewarding and inexpensive ways too.

Whether you are just beginning to hunt squirrels with an air rifle, or have several seasons of experience under your belt, there is always something that can be learned. In this article, we cover some basic considerations for picking the right gear, and then discuss some of the common squirrel species the hunter is likely to encounter.

Never forget to check and comply with all applicable laws and regulations before you set off on any hunt!

Air rifle types for squirrel hunting

While there are many types of air rifles that can be used for hunting small game, what is needed is in a good squirrel hunting model, aside from overall quality and accuracy, is power and range. As we’ve explained before in our general hunting article, for furred game such as this, ideally you will want a rifle with at least 12 foot-pounds of energy (“FPE”) at the muzzle in a rifle bore of .20 or .22 caliber, or larger. A .177 caliber rifle can be used too, but I personally would not recommend using one for much beyond backyard/pest eradication given this smaller caliber’s more limited ability to deliver kinetic energy downrange.

RWS 34 T06 Trigger

The legendary RWS 34 makes an outstanding squirrel hunting air rifle

While 12 FPE is a good minimum target, having more power than 12 FPE is highly recommended for the more serious hunter, or for those who simply want to engage their quarry at longer ranges (30+ yards), since pellet trajectory (in a .22 cal.) is likely fall off pretty quickly if you are working with borderline power. Of course, if you are merely looking to reclaim your backyard birdfeeder or take shots within 15 yards or so, this doesn’t apply to you and 12 FPE is easily sufficient.

The best power plants for the squirrel hunter are spring piston, gas piston and precharged pneumatic (PCP) air rifles. While individual models vary, each of these technologies has the capacity to generate impressive muzzle energy and is suitable to power heavier .22 caliber pellets. Stay away from C02 and pump types; as a general rule they just do not have enough power to put down squirrels humanely, especially at typical hunting distances.

Ben Marauder for hunting squirrels

The Ben Marauder PCP air rifle is an ideal choice for the hard-core squirrel hunter

Noise is another consideration, but an optional one. Squirrels are easily spooked in the field and the loud cracking of a spring-piston rifle can make getting second or third shots off. Generally speaking, gas-pistons are usually (but not always) quieter, and PCP rifles, such as the Benjamin Marauder, tend to be the quietest, although this again is not always the case. Nevertheless, noise is not a critical factor in our opinion, since even relatively quiet guns can send squirrels high-tailing it regardless.

Do I need a scope?

While you may be fine with open sights if you are looking to rid your attic or garden of send a message to some pest squirrels; for the hunter, a good air rifle scope is absolutely key to get the most out of the sport. In addition, we strongly suggest choosing a variable scope to maximize accuracy at a variety of ranges, such as 4x-12x model. As usual, make sure it’s mounted properly and that you take the time to properly sight the scope before you take aim at any animal.

Choosing the right pellets

Air-gun-pellets

From left to right, flat, round nose, hollow point and pointed pellets. Top row .22, bottom .177 caliber.

There are many types of pellets available and there is no one perfect pellet for all rifles and situations, and the best pellet is always the one that delivers the most reliable results for your particular rifle and quarry. However, assuming you are using a sufficiently-powered rifle, you will most likely want to stick with a round nose or pointed standard lead pellet for any hunting in the field. At close ranges for pest-eradication, however, a wadcutter can be extremely effective. There is virtually no reason to bother with lightweight alloys in typical hunting scenarios; if anything, especially with a high-powered rifle, you want to use a heavier pellet to maximize range and conserve FPE delivered to the target, both of which are improved when using heavier pellets. We suggest you that always experiment with several pellets using targets and pick the one that delivers the most reliable accuracy.

If you are determined to use a .177 caliber rifle, you will want to use the heaviest pellet that you can find that also gives you reliable groups.

Techniques and strategies

There is no one-size-fits-all strategy for hunting squirrels, but there are some basic considerations that are good to keep in mind.

Pre-hunting reconnaissance

This cannot be overstated. In my opinion, unless you are fortunate enough to have squirrels literally crawling around in your backyard, doing your “homework” on the ground is what separates successful squirrel hunters from those who struggle to get approach their limit.

A stand of oak promises good hunting.

Before you try to shoot any squirrel, take time to walk prospective hunting grounds. In addition to noting obvious squirrel activity, look for large hardwood trees, especially beech and oak, and the presence of mast (early season), nuts, cone piles and nests. Forest edges and watercourses are often good choices too for recon as squirrels will often move along these areas in search of food or when patrolling territories. If snow is on the ground, tracking squirrels can be very effective; at least to determine which trees or denning areas squirrels are using and are likely to return to. Do not shoot at or otherwise molest squirrels in their dens, however; this unethical and may be illegal in your state.

Also keep in mind the types of habitats in your area in light of the habitat preferences of the types of squirrels you are after. As discussed more below, for example, Eastern grey squirrels are most at home in relatively dense woodlands with a well-developed understory; whereas fox squirrels like smaller, much more open woodlands with a relatively sparse or barren understory, along with forest edge habitats.

Sit or stalk?

A_squirrel_prepares_to_jump_to_the_ground

Stealthy movement can pay off

Although not mutually exclusive, you will often hear of two squirrel hunting approaches: the stalkers and the sitters. All of this must be taken with a grain of salt, however. Of course, setting yourself down in a blind and remaining motionless can certainly present excellent shooting opportunities, this implies that you have done extensive recon beforehand and have placed yourself in a prime location that this is close of a food, nest or some routinely used travel corridor. Fantastic! Your will probably bag your limit if you can only maintain your composure.

But that is not the only way to bag a squirrel. In habitats that do not have concentrated food or den resources, or for those who simply like to move and stalk a bit more (myself included), simply being patient and moving stealthily in the forest can prove just as effective. Typically, I recommend moving as silently as possible and then stopping for periods of time to listen for activity and opportunities before continuing to move. No, it’s not rocket science folks, but the key is to be as quiet and observant as possible. Moist ground is particularly good for sneaking up on squirrels. Regardless, even a spooked squirrel is likely to venture out again in 20 to 30 minutes if you sit tight and motionless. In addition, I strongly suggest using a good pair of binoculars; picking out squirrels from a distance, especially high in trees, without them can be very challenging even with perfect eyesight.

The early bird catches the squirrel

early morning squirrel hunting

First light is prime time for most squirrels

While you may find just about any type of squirrel active at just about any time of the day (except for midday during summer, which you should avoid), the consensus seems to be that squirrels are more active in the morning, except for particularly frigid mornings. This is particularly true in my experience for Eastern gray squirrels, which seem to be most active in the wee hours of the morning, at first light.

Next to early morning, the last hours of daylight around sunset can also be a good bet to find squirrels moving about.

A pocket full of stones

Some die hard squirrel hunter swear by this: (1) pick up some small rocks and put them in your pocket before you set off for your hunt; (2) wait until that squirrel that you just missed invariably tries to hide behind that big tree in front of you; (3) throw a stone behind the tree where he’s hiding; and (4) be ready to shoot!

Try to blend in

While hunt you can certainly get away with hunting for squirrels in just about any type of clothes, those who are serious understand the benefit of moving through the forest in full camouflage. Squirrels are extremely observant and have a knack for bolting when they see a human face or bright clothing, even from a considerable distance. Nevertheless, this all assumes that there are no otherwise applicable laws which you must comply with (e.g., wearing a blaze orange vest for safety).

Consider a squirrel call

Although this is not something that I have personally used, some hunters report good success with squirrel calls or any objects (one hunter suggested rubbing two quarters together) that can produce a gnawing or chirping sound that might grab a squirrel’s attention. This technique can be particularly effective to bring a spooked squirrel out of hiding, or draw squirrels closer when using the sit and wait method.

Should I use a dog?

Black Mouth Cur

Black Mouth Cur, a breed used for squirrel hunting

A good treeing dog can definitely speed things up as far as locating squirrels. The Black Mouth Cur shown to the left, for example, is one dog breed that has been used for this purpose.

However, is a dog really necessary? Keep in mind that, once the squirrel has been treed, depending on the circumstances, you may not get a great shot off on that animal (who is now thoroughly spooked) at least one that is within the effective range of your typical air rifle. Unless you are using a conventional firearm, I say leave “skipper” home.

Common North American squirrels

There are many squirrel species in North America; the following are some of the most common. As with any type of hunting, it pays to learn as much as you can about the natural history of your quarry, so keep some of these facts in mind if any of these species occur in your region.

Eastern grey squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis)

256px-Eastern_Grey_Squirrel

Eastern gray squirrel, enjoying a seed

This a 17 to 20-inch-long, grayish-brown, highly arboreal (tree-dwelling) species native to the eastern half of North America that ranges into Canada. It is an extremely hardy and adaptable species that has also taken hold, regionally, in the western US and has successfully become established throughout Europe, South Africa, and several island nations thanks to a series of introductions that took place around the turn of the century. This has wreaked havoc on some of the natives in these foreign lands unfortunately. For example, in Britain, the species is considered an invasive pest that threatens to displace Britain’s native red squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris).

The Eastern gray has been so successful in spreading in part because it is a highly prolific species that can reproduce up to twice per year (between December – February and May – June) depending on food availability and produce anywhere from one to a eight young per litter. This squirrel mates in winter and prefers to nest in trees, where it often constructs rather large and disorganized nests that are placed high up on branches or within hollowed cavities, including abandoned woodpecker holes. Attics, exterior wall spaces and other cozy spots in and around human dwellings also make fine dens. Males and females become sexually mature at around one year of age, and can live up to 20 years in captivity. Wild squirrels are likely to perish much sooner due to predation and other environmental pressures.

Typical Eastern gray squirrel habitat consists of mature, dense stands of deciduous trees like oak, beech, maples and elms that support a well-developed understory. However, as their rapid expansion suggests, they are quick to adapt to other types of biotypes as was all residential areas, city parks and urban environments so long as their basic shelter and food requirements are met.

15511075743_bd676c4efa_m

Eastern gray squirrel looking to “cache” a nut

Eastern gray squirrels ordinarily forage on things like seeds, nuts, berries, mushrooms and tree bark, but will happily avail themselves of backyard birdfeeders (a favorite) and gardens, where they may help themselves to your fruit and vegetables. If getting desperate, they can also turn toward more meaty fare and prey on other small rodents (including each other), insects and even birds and bird eggs. As with many squirrel species, the eastern gray is a “scatter-hoarder”; like it sounds, this means that they deposit food among numerous cache locations that are spread out across a relatively large area. They spend much of their time engaging in this activity and it is estimated that they create several thousand caches per season. Amazingly, they use a “spatial memory” that uses landmarks to reliably brings them within inches of their cache locations, at which point they can detect food by smell. Fortunately for the trees, however, the squirrels sometimes forget a cache or two and the nuts germinate.

Hunting Eastern gray squirrels can be done year round, local laws permitting, since they do not hibernate. Technically a “crepuscular” species, S. carolinensis, is most active in the very early morning and during the last hours of sunset; but they can theoretically be found out and about at any time of the day, except during midday during the hot summer months.

For the air rifle hunter, the eastern grey presents a myriad of challenges. Owing to their strongly arboreal nature and highly unusual ability to rapidly descend trees head first (thanks to hind feet that can rotate), they are quick to flee upwards and may force a clumsy hunter to become lost in a never-ending game of hide-behind-the-tree. Eastern grey squirrels that are found in relatively pristine woodland habitats are particularly easy to spook, and therefore make the most “sporting” quarry in my opinion. A hunter must be patient in these circumstances and will often find the best shooting opportunities when squirrels are either foraging or caching food on the forest floor in the early morning.

Western gray squirrel (Sciurus griseus)

Western Gray SquirrelWhile similar in size and shape to the Eastern grey, the Western gray has a gunmetal gray dorsum and pure white underbelly. The Western gray is far shyer than its Eastern counterpart and will generally bolt up the nearest tree and chirp loudly at even the slightest disturbance. This species ranges along the west coast from northern Baja California up to Washington and the Sierra Nevada range in Central California in forests up to 2,000 meters in elevation.

They too nest in trees lined with twigs, grass and shredded bark. Breeding normally occurs between December and June and one to five young are born per litter. Food preferences are also similar, and this squirrel spends considerable time foraging for and “scatter-hoarding” pine nuts, acorns, berries, mushrooms, berries, buds and insects to a lesser extent.

Unlike its eastern cousin, the Western gray has struggled to maintain populations in various parts of its range and has been extirpated in several areas. Where it does occur, it is often limited to mountains and foothill habitats. It is believed that the introduction of the comparatively more aggressive fox squirrel (Sciurus niger) in southern California may have contributed to the Western grey’s retreat from the lower-lying areas.

American red squirrel (Tamaiasciurus hudsonicus)

Tamiasciurus_hudsonicus, pine squirrelSometimes referred to as simply red squirrels or pine squirrels, this a medium-sized tree squirrel that is common throughout coniferous woodlands in North America, Canada, and coastal British Columbia. They are very common species throughout the Rocky Mountains. The closely related Douglas squirrel, or chickaree (Tamiasciurus douglasii), is very similar to the red squirrel in almost all respects but is limited to coniferous habitats in the Cascade Mountains and western parts of the Pacific Northwest.

Female red squirrels can breed at one year of age, but will sometimes wait another year or two before reproducing. They produce litters of one to five young, typically, once per year, but a second litter is possible in good years. Conversely, breeding may skipped during some years when resources are scarce. Nests are traditionally constructed in trees.

The red squirrel eats seeds primarily, especially pine seeds, which may alone comprise half of its diet in some areas. Of course, they are also known to forage for a wide variety of other things, like mushrooms, spruce buds, tree leaves, berries, flowers, bird eggs and even snowshoe hare young.

This is a very territorial species and, as such, it is imperative for juvenile red squirrels to obtain a territory before their first winter in order to see their next. Even so, life is tough in the wild and it is estimated that only about 22 percent of young red squirrels survive their first year, after which they can expect to live, on average, about 2.5 years.

California ground squirrel (Otospermophilus beecheyi)

California_Ground_Squirrel_Dana_Point_Harbor_2007_2This is a common, medium-sized ground-dwelling squirrel that can found throughout the western U.S. from Oregon down to the Baja California Penninsula.

Unlike the species mentioned above, the California ground squirrel constructs burrows on the ground that they dig themselves. They feed mostly on grains, but are happy to feed on just about anything, including ornamental trees, fruits and vegetables found in backyard gardens.

This species is notable for easily becoming tame around humans, and have become a pest in many parks along its range. Finding burrows is a good way to locate these animals, since most ground squirrels prefer to remain within 50 meters of their burrows. The California ground squirrel is vulnerable to the same types of predators as tree-dwelling types, such as hawks, fox and bobcat; however, living on the ground puts them in rattlesnake country, and they have developed a suite of anti-predation behaviors and adaptations as a result, including being somewhat resistant to rattlesnake venom and engaging in sand-kicking and tail waiving behaviors that serve to distract and intimidate some of their serpentine attackers.

Fox squirrel (Sciurus niger)

Sciurus_niger, fox squirrelThe largest tree squirrel in North America, fox squirrels may weigh up to 2.2 pounds with body lengths of up to 28 inches (not including the tail). Color varies depending on region and subspecies, but in most cases these squirrels are brownish-grey on their dorsum and brownish-orange underneath.

This species can be found across much of the eastern U.S. (except some New England states and Pennsylvania) and northward up into Southern Canada; it ranges westward into Texas, Colorado and the Dakotas. They have also been introduced in Washington, Idaho, Oregon, California and New Mexico. Their preferred habitat consists of small woodland tracks with a fairly open canopy that have a relatively open to almost barren understory, but like most of the species here, they can easily adapt to residential areas and even densely-populated urban areas.

Fox squirrels utilize tree dens and leaf nests; leaf nests are built in forks of deciduous trees roughly 30 feet above ground; whereas tree dens are typically constructed in tree cavities and are preferred during the winter months. They can create their own nest cavities, but will gladly accept ones created for them by native woodpeckers and flickers, for example.

320px-Fox_squirrel_with_sunflowerseed_by_tree_South_Bend_Indiana_USAFemales ordinarily will produce two litters per year, although young females may breed only once per year. Three young are born per litter, on average, but this can vary depending of food availability and other environmental factors.

Fox squirrels are the “big game” of North American squirrels: they are powerful climbers and jumpers, and adults are reported to easily leap 15 between trees or free-fall more than twenty feet to the ground or next branch. Given their large size and agility, adult squirrels are preyed upon by only large mammalian and avian predators (e.g., fox, bobcat, red-tailed hawk and great horned owl). Humans are by far their biggest predator, however, and fox squirrels have been hunted extensively in regions where they are not protected leading to over harvesting and population declines in many areas.

Have any squirrel hunting stories to share?

That’s about it as far as we’re concerned. Do you have any tips or squirrel hunting experiences to share our readers? We are looking for experienced guest contributors and will feature well-written and researched submissions that are over 300 words in length– we look forward to hearing from you!

Sources and additional information:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fox_squirrel
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/California_ground_squirrel
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Western_gray_squirrel
http://wdfw.wa.gov/living/tree_squirrels.html
http://www.fcps.edu/islandcreekes/ecology/htm
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eastern_gray_squirrel
http://www.fieldandstream.com/articles/hunting/small-game/e/2009/09/
http://www.gameandfishmag.com/hunting/tips-and-tactics-for-early-season-squirrels/
http://www.outdoorlife.com/blogs/hunting/2013/08/squirrel-hunting-basics
http://www.huntingnet.com/forum/small-game-predator-trapping/ricks.html

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