“Where are all the squirrels that were around when I was a kid?” someone asked in a recent conversation I had. True, even on State Forest Land seeing a wild gray squirrel is rare. I remember back to my teenage and young adult years when I used to hunt them on my grandfather’s farm and they were quite numerous. Filling your bag limit in a morning wasn’t too difficult.
I also remember my grandfather’s woodlot well. I spent a lot of time there. It consisted of small to large sawtimber size trees. There were a variety of species such as hickory, black cherry, tulip poplar, butternut, sugar maple, red maple, basswood, ash, eastern hophornbeam and beech. The woodlot contained wild grape.
Wildflowers, leaks, and mushrooms were abundant depending on the time of year. The woodlot’s boundary to the north was a stream, on the south and east was an agricultural field where corn was often grown.
Here in the Gallitzin State Forest much of our species consist of oak, red maple, and dying beech from the fungal scale disease. Even in areas where black cherry is more abundant the understory tends to consist of fern, or beech brush and striped maple, or both. While acorns are a major staple of squirrels, oaks do not produce a consistent crop of abundance year after year.
You are probably now beginning to realize where the squirrels are. They are in areas that meet their food and shelter requirements. Habitat is both food and shelter.
While oaks are important for squirrels, they need a consistent food supply throughout the year. A variety of oak species mixed with hickories, butternut and walnut, and some beech ensures a more consistent supply of hard mast in the fall. Squirrels can do quite well without oaks if other hard mast species are available. Other fall foods include fruits such as wild grape and berries. In early spring, gray squirrels feed on buds and flowers of red and sugar maples and tulip poplar. Later in the spring they will feed on the seeds of maple, ash, tulip poplar and elm. In summer they consume berries, roots, mushrooms, apples, corn, and other grains and will even become predatory, eating insects, slugs, and taking birds' eggs and nestlings.
If you own some forest land, improvement cuts such as thinning can be beneficial to squirrels. If possible, leave some wild grape in poorer stems and preserve some hollow trees or trees with cavities (1 to 3 per acre). Gray squirrels will be most abundant in sawtimber size stands, especially as the trees reach medium sawtimber size and larger. Trees of this size will provide the most den trees and mast. Den trees are especially important for rearing young and winter shelter. While gray squirrels will build nests out of leaves and twigs, a tree with a nice cavity in it is preferred. Thinning stands in pole size stage can help a forest stand reach sawtimber size sooner.
Key species are hickories, oaks, tulip poplar, beech, butternut, walnut, and red and sugar maple, black cherry, and wild grape. Sawtimber size woodlots that contain some of these species along crop fields are a good bet. These woodlots often have sun-loving berries along their edges. Moist bottom lands along streams and rivers that are rich in tree species are likely places also.
For successful bushy tail hunting or viewing, don’t look for stands dominated by oak. Rather look for well stocked stands of sawtimber size trees that contain a variety of species and at least a few species of nut producers, which may include oaks. Such stands along agricultural fields and/or water sources are likely to be highly productive.
Pennsylvania Bureau of Forestry foresters are available for assistance to private landowners free of charge. Interested landowners can call 814-472-1862814-472-1862.
Contributed by Christopher Jones, Service Forester with the PA DCNR Bureau of Forestry