Squirrel

Squirrels are in the lead of a progression of Kentucky seasons that are considered the fall hunting year.

This weekend will be the last one without an ongoing Kentucky hunting season for a long time.

Although it is barely mid-summer, Kentucky’s so-called “fall” hunting season for squirrels begins Aug. 15 on the traditional third Saturday of August. It is the start of a progression that runs summer through fall and well into winter with a variety of small game, migratory bird, big game and furbearer seasons.

The hunting year, like the licensing year, technically runs March 1-Feb. 28 in Kentucky. And there is spring hunting, primarily in the spring turkey gobbler season, and secondarily in the spring squirrel season.

However, most hunting for game animals and birds is concentrated into late summer to early winter, the period when wildlife numbers are most generous and hunter harvest subtracts from what amounts to surplus — animals and birds that effectively would be lost to natural mortality.

The fall squirrel season is the most generous of any of those, running from that Aug. 15 opening all the way through the end of the 2020-21 hunting year, closing on Feb. 28. The marathon season only is only hold for two days during this stretch, suspended for the Saturday and Sunday of the firearms deer season opening weekend (Nov. 14-15 this year).

Regulations should be familiar for this year’s traditional bushytail season; they have not changed. Primary among these is the bag limit of six squirrels a day and a possession limit of 12 after two or more days hunting.

Technically, if one hunted every day of the traditional squirrel season and took a legal limit of squirrels each time out, it would remain legal without a possession limit violation by consistently eating the harvest or at least giving them away so as not to have more than 12 on hand at any time.

If that hypothetical result were achieved, a single hunter with full success on each of 196 hunting days could legally take 1,176 squirrels during the season. Many, many hunters could do that, according to regulations.

Golly, one wonders. What keeps the squirrel season from wiping out the squirrel population?

Hunter harvest does not work like that. Bagging a daily limit of six squirrels is more likely the exception than the rule. Taking no squirrels on a squirrel hunting outing probably occurs far more often than taking a limit. Much more conventional would be taking one or two, perhaps three or four.

During the early part of the traditional season, as in next weekend’s opening days, conditions are not prime for heavy harvest anyway. In the summer part of the season, heat, humidity and tormenting insects can make it difficult for hunters to put in long sessions in the woods.

Summer hunting means full green foliage in the forests and woodlots, and visibility is compromised. It is difficult to harvest squirrels when they might even be within close range in the tree limbs above you, but you can’t see them.

Another possible misconception about the lengthy squirrel season leading to an excessive harvest is related to hunter participation. Kentucky Department Fish & Wildlife Resources surveys show that the vast percentage of squirrel hunting outings takes place within the first two to three weeks of the season. In other words, the “average” squirrel hunter in Kentucky may go a time or two right after the season begins, but after the “opening day” attraction wears off, the rest of the months-long season is often ignored.

Too, nowadays there is a general trend among outdoors enthusiasts to neglect small game opportunities in favor of more attention for headliner species, chiefly deer, wild turkeys and perhaps waterfowl. Squirrels once ran neck and neck with rabbits as the most hunted game in Kentucky, but that was when there were not huntable populations of deer and turkey.

These days, only a relative few squirrel hunting specialists hunt a significant number of days through the long season.

Biologists say many more hunters could pursue squirrels much more often and still have no significant effect on the squirrel population. As it is, hunters essentially have no impact on squirrel numbers. The squirrel population is practically controlled by the annual mast crop, most critically the supply of acorns that oak trees produce each fall.

When acorns, hickory nuts and other mast is in heavy supply, squirrels flourish and survive in greater numbers, then produce more youngsters in breeding periods. When this essential food supply is lean, squirrel numbers decline in accord.

Even if there were far more highly productive squirrel hunters, their impact on squirrel numbers would still be insignificant compared to the wealth or scarcity of acorns and other mast.

• While we are now right at summer’s middle point, don’t imagine that it is not getting late. Technically, we’re just about to get on the back side of the infamous Dog Days of summer.

The Dog Days in consensus has come to mean the hottest, sultry days of summer. As weather varies, that could be almost any stretch from late spring until early fall. There are blistering days in June and September just as there are pleasingly mild days in mid-summer. Earlier this week a cold front brought us some crisp, mild conditions that felt strangely pleasant for August.

By the calendar, officially the Dog Days are July 3-Aug 11, meaning that this period — when heat and humidity are supposedly the worst — is to be gone by the middle of next week. Another official way to measure the Dog Days is to calculate from 20 days before until 20 after the peak intensity date of July 23.

That seems to fit with temperatures records. Three weeks or so into July traditionally is a blazing period for heat and humidity here.

Historically, however, the Dog Days observation is more related to astronomy than meteorology. The event was first noted by the ancient Greeks and Romans who observed the Dog Star, Sirius, rising in the sky at dawn during this period.

Sirius, the brightest star in our sky, is part of the constellation Canis Majoris (“the greater dog”). That is where the Dog Days name for the period originated.

The dawn rising period of Sirius really seems to have no effect on weather, but it also coincided with the hottest times for the ancients as well as us. The Greeks and Romans lumped those two things together. The Dog Days became known as the star-influenced time when both dogs and people might be driven mad by the heat.

I don’t know about being driven mad, but typical weather of the Dog Days certainly adds an element of irritability. Recognizing that, it seems a good thing that the canine-linked sizzling season is about gone. It has a right to be sweltering for several weeks yet, but we are that much closer to the soothing moderation of autumn.

Steve Vantreese is a freelance outdoors writer. Email outdoors news items to outdoors@paducahsun.com or phone 270-575-8650.