As the fall archery and falconry-only squirrel season comes to a close in California, the general squirrel hunting season is set to begin.
Four types of tree squirrels are typically found in California: the Western gray squirrel and the Douglas squirrel (both native), and the Eastern fox squirrel and the Eastern gray squirrel (both non-native). A fifth species, the Northern Flying Squirrel is not considered a game species but is a small, native, squirrel that is seldom encountered due to its nocturnal nature and preference for mature forest habitats with complex canopy structure.
Tree squirrel population levels vary greatly from year to year based on prevailing weather conditions and the annual production of nuts, acorns and seeds for forage.
“During any given year, tree squirrels in the state likely number in the millions,” said Matt Meshriy, an environmental scientist with CDFW’s Upland Game Program. “We have definitely noticed the numbers of invasive Eastern fox squirrels and Eastern gray squirrels increasing as these species have expanded their range in recent years. The native Western gray squirrels and Douglas squirrels are often displaced where they overlap with invasive eastern species, but the native squirrels also generally occupy forest habitats where introduced species are not found.”
In recent years, approximately 10,000 to 15,000 hunters report hunting tree squirrels annually and their combined statewide bag has ranged from 50,000 to 75,000. National forests provide some of the best opportunity to hunt tree squirrels in California. Bureau of Land Management lands and CDFW wildlife areas may also provide opportunity for squirrel hunting. Please note that as of July 1, 2015, nonlead ammunition is required when hunting on all state wildlife areas and ecological reserves. Please plan accordingly. For more information please see the CDFW nonlead ammunition page.
Squirrel Habitat in California
Squirrel hunting is a good starting point for the new hunter because tree squirrels are widely distributed throughout the California squirrel hunt zone and provide ample opportunities for hunting. Tree squirrels can be taken with small caliber firearms, such as a pellet gun or .22 caliber rifle or small shotgun (although 10 gauge shotguns are the largest shotguns allowed by regulation they are not recommended for squirrel hunting), which may be more comfortable or appropriate for a younger hunter. Tree squirrels are also relatively easy to clean and prepare for consumption, allowing younger hunters to master all aspects of harvesting wild game.
Knowing where to hunt is key to the success of any hunter, regardless of age or experience level. Some species are more prevalent in certain parts of the state than others.
- Western gray squirrels are found throughout the state except in Imperial, Contra Costa, San Francisco and King counties. Their typical habitat is in mature stands of conifer, hardwood and mixed hardwood-conifer habitats in the Klamath, Cascade, Transverse, Peninsular and Sierra Nevada mountain ranges as well as in riparian stands in the Central Valley.
- Douglas squirrels are found in conifer, hardwood-conifer and riparian habitats of the Sierra Nevada, Cascade, Klamath, North Coast and Warner Ranges. They may inhabit altitudes from sea level to 11,000 feet elevation. They live in a majority of California counties including Alpine, Amador, Butte, Calaveras, Colusa, Del Norte, El Dorado, Fresno, Glenn, Humboldt, Inyo, Kern, Lake, Lassen, Madera, Mariposa, Mendocino, Modoc, Mono, Nevada, Placer, Plumas, Shasta, Sierra, Siskiyou, Sonoma, Tehama, Trinity, Tulare, Tuolumne and Yuba.
- Eastern fox squirrels are a non-native species that was first introduced in California more than 100 years ago in Los Angeles County. They have been expanding their range in California’s valley, foothill riparian, redwood and valley foothill hardwood habitats ever since. They are able to out-compete native gray squirrels in many human-altered habitats thanks to their broader dietary preferences, tolerance of open and urbanized areas and the fact that they produce two litters of pups annually compared with only one litter for the native gray squirrel. Today there are many localized populations of Eastern fox squirrels living mostly in and around urban and nearby rural settings including vineyards and orchards that surround coastal metropolitan areas. Eastern fox squirrels are reported to inhabit Alameda, Contra Costa, Los Angeles, Marin, Merced, Mendocino, Orange, Sacramento, San Mateo, Santa Clara, Santa Cruz, Shasta, Solano and Ventura counties.
- Eastern gray squirrels are a non-native species that was introduced to California. They have continued to expand their range, similar to the Eastern fox squirrel. They prefer heavily wooded areas and thrive in urban parks, and occur today in the San Francisco Bay Area, extending south through Santa Cruz County as well as in urban settings in the Central Valley and adjacent to the Calaveras River. There is little evidence that Eastern gray squirrels have displaced native California gray squirrels to an appreciable degree, however, Eastern gray squirrels are known to compete with and displace Eastern fox squirrels where they co-exist in California.
General Tips for Squirrel Hunting Success
Successful squirrel hunters are stealthy, well-prepared and properly equipped. The following tips are useful for hunting in any habitat.
- Be stealthy. Squirrels have excellent hearing and vision and are well adapted to detect and evade predators. Squirrels will often see you before you see them, so being quiet and attentive enough to glimpse or hear a tree squirrel that may move or change its position in reaction to your presence is essential to a successful hunt. Practice walking as quietly as possible and be especially alert when entering into new habitat, such as when you first exit your vehicle or when you top a rise in the trail.
- Practice patience. Once a squirrel has become alerted to your presence, it will often cease whatever activity it was engaged in and will wait motionless for a half hour or more for you to leave their area. A good strategy is to look for signs of tree squirrels (piles of stripped pine cone scales under conifers) and sit tight and wait for a while. Use binoculars or a scope to scan tree branches; tree squirrels will often sit or lie down prostrate on a branch while resting or avoiding detection by a predator. Knowing when to take the time to sit and wait can lead to a more successful, more efficient and ultimately more enjoyable hunt!
- Use a hunting dog when possible. A dog can improve your success and minimize the potential for a wounding loss. If a tree squirrel is injured but not killed by your shot, they will likely flee rapidly and attempt to find cover. A dog may be the most effective way to ensure that a squirrel that falls to the ground will not be lost. Dogs may also aid in pointing or chasing a squirrel around to you from the opposite side of a tree. If you are not hunting with a dog, be sure to be prepared for a fast follow up shot to avoid a wounding loss.
- Choose your firearm wisely. The best choice of gun and shot size will depend on both the hunter and local habitat. The gun should be comfortable enough to carry all day and easy to “swing” to take a shot. For youth hunters or those hunting in high-quality habitat, a pellet gun is light and compact and can allow for follow-up shots to take additional tree squirrels in some situations because of its relatively quiet operation. Experienced hunters or those hunting in more open habitats may prefer a shotgun with size 5 or 6 shot. For early season hunts when deciduous trees still hold most of their leaves, a number 4 shot may be a better choice. Small shotguns such as a .410 or 20 gauge are another excellent choice for hunting tree squirrels.
Regulations, Requirements and Safety Concerns
Tree squirrels can be hunted in the open zone during the open season under authority of a hunting license in California. No other validations are required.
Hunters should never shoot into dense vegetation to take a tree squirrel because of the risk of another hunter being on the other side. Never shoot toward rocks or water to avoid the possibility of a projectile bouncing toward you or someone else. Positioning yourself below a tree squirrel allows for a safe shot. While not required, blaze orange should be worn for safety, along with proper safety glasses.
Important laws and regulations to consider include the following:
- Tree squirrels may be taken in the open zone during the open season from between one half hour before sunrise to one half hour after sunset.
- All hunters, including youths with a junior hunting license, are required to carry their hunting license with them.
- Bag limits apply to each hunter and no one can take more than one legal limit.
- It is illegal to shoot within 150 yards of an occupied dwelling.
- It is illegal to shoot from or across a public roadway.
It is the responsibility of every hunter to know and follow all laws.
CDFW urges hunters to drink plenty of fluids, wear sun protection and have a plan in case of an emergency.
Matt Meshriy, CDFW Upland Game Program, (916) 322-6709
Kirsten Macintyre, CDFW Communications, (916) 322-8988