"Oh, the Squirrel-Eye Man is the man fer me,
He was born way down in Tennessee...
With a squirrel eye!"
As a youngster , I remember visiting an elderly friend at her cottage by Duck Lake, Michigan, in the early 1950's. I commented on how the lake shore would be clear for several summers and then on one summer would be clogged with dead water plants. The friend, who had witnessed this for years before I was born, said that the lake had always undergone cycles and would periodically purge itself from plants and start fresh.
Since then I have spoken with a number of DNR officers and forresters who have said that various wildlife populations undergo the same phenomenon. Squirrels, rabbits and other small game populations will grow and grow in roughly a nine year cycle until a "critical mass is reached and the population is too big for the immediate environment to support it and it will either migrate or nearly die out.
These migrations every decade or so have been well documented. In the autumn of 1842, a Dr. P. R. Hoy of Racine, Wisconsin, kept journal records of a plague of grey squirrels rolling like a carpet, 130 miles wide and 150 miles long.
More recently, in Missouri's Pemiscot County, in September, 1914, a migration of grey squirrels moving shoulder to shoulder, formed a hurd eating everything in its path, 3/4 mile wide and a 1/4 mile deep, moved 25 miles and then dispursed.
In the early 19th Century, 12 Michigan market hunters shot over 20,000 squirrels in one week. The Ohio legislature in that era, as a bounty to curb the excess population, allowed settlers to pay their taxes in squirrel hides at 3 cents each.
Squirrels have been a staple of the American diet since the founding
of our country.
One friend, "Darwin" from Arkansas, says that early in the Depression, his grandfather worked as a forester and tree marker for a major paper company. He would not allow his sons or grandsons to do any squirrel hunting or poaching on corporation land, as jobs were prescious and he did not want to risk any illwill. The grandmother purchased a Stevens, rolling block .22 rifle and persuaded the local hardware store to break open a box of .22 shorts and sell them a portion at a time (a whole box was too costly). The tiny rifle and 3 bullets were rationed out daily to "Darwin" the three year old son, who was the only child too young for school yet. The father, who spent his day "starin at the ass end of two mules out in the cotton fields" couldn't hear the report of the tiny .22 rifle in the woods. The grandfather also pretended to never notice the presence of meat mixed into the evening meals. According to "Darwin", this scenario was not unique to that era. He went on to use his self taught marksmanship skills to serve his country with a distinguished life long military career. Yet, he, like many of us today, is puzzled by the current rash of mass school shootings, and road rage in these decades following the national gunbans and licensing of 1968.
Evolution of the Squirrel Rifle and marksmanship:
While rifles with bores of .50 to .75 were most common among settlers of the late 18th century, settlers of the early 19th century found rifles with bores as small as .36 and even .32 more practical. The short big bored flintlocks of the Hessian Yaegers or German hunters of the 1770s evolved through the Pennsylvania Long Lancaster rifles to the sleek squirrel rifles of Kentucky and Tennessee. Certainly, big game such as deer, were present in the Michigan, Ohio and Tennessee territories but squirrel was far more plentiful. (The biggest buck ever taken in recent recorded history of Michigan was killed with a tiny 32-20 cartridge. With many large animals shot placement is often more important than caliber. ) At only 81 grains, nearly a hundred .375 balls weigh only about a pound. Because the mass of a lead bullet cubes while diameter doubles, slightly larger calibers can weigh two to threes more for the same number of shots. The smaller caliber was far cheaper to shoot and many more shots could be carried on long journeys.
A direct hit even with the diminutive 36 caliber still tended to destroy a squirrel's hide as well as meat. A backwoods shooting technique known as "barking a squirrel" evolved. The marksman would place a lead ball in the palm of his hand and pour enough powder from his horn to just cover the ball. Just enough to get the ball to the target was considered ideal. The load was then increased until the rifle would make a "crack" sound instead of a boom. This was an early way to determine that the ball had reached 1100 feet per second or the speed of sound. Squirrels commonly sprawl out over a tree top branch in the noonday heat, with their heads resting on the bark and their legs dangling over the sides. The hunter would angle his shot to hit only the bark just under the squirrels resting head. The concussion of the squirrels bark pillow blowing up would kill him instantly and yet draw no blood.
The Tennessee squirrel hunters in "Old Hickory's" ranks at the Battle of New Orleans in 1815 found that the brass belt plates on a British soldiers' chest at 100 yards was easier to hit than a squirrel's head. They killed over 2000 British in only a half hour while loosing only 13 of their own.
Upcoming Discussion of Squirrel hunting:
The non-hunter cannot appreciate what a challenge squirrel hunting is. The city dweller may have to slow down in his own driveway to avoid hitting two or three squirrels just on his way to work. He will find it difficult to believe that you can spend an entire late September day in the woods and all that you might see are a full nut hulls at the base of an old oak. Walk a forest with a .22 rifle and the blue jays, who seem to figure that they are not at risk, will fly just ahead of you all day squawking loudly to warn squirrels that you are approaching. Animals do have a sixth sense. I have gone into the woods at dark on a September 15th, Michigan opening day, to sit quietly at base of an old oak to await sunrise. While sitting, I have had a chipmunk dash up my leg to stand and look at me from the toe of my own boot. Immediately after that three doe came tumbling through the underbrush to stop within arms reach in front of me in my clearing. They would cock their heads from side to side to study me more closely and even stamp their hoves into the dirt in front of me to taunt or challenge me into moving. It was a scene to rival Disney movie. To test our "psychic" communication, I raised my .22 rifle and aimed at the closest doe and thought menacing thoughts. Her little white tail switched up to give the group the signal : "he's nothin to worry about" and they casually walked away. They seemed to know they had two months of safety yet before deer season started. In all of this, not a squirrel was seen all day.
More stories to follow. I am sure that you will have
squirrel tips to share and I would enjoy hearing from you.