Only time will tell if drought affects squirrel season

Published 12:25 pm Tuesday, September 19, 2023

LOYD STAR — Grass is brown, pine trees are dropping needles and leaves are falling off the trees. A dry August and September are speeding up the fall process of autumn and revealing a scarce mast crop ahead of squirrel season. 

While the lack of rain could be a factor in acorn production, several other factors go into mast crop production. Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks small game biologist Rick Hamrick said a late frost in the spring might have hurt the white oaks producing acorns. Water oaks are one of the few acorns you can find right now if you glass around your property in Lincoln County. 

Hamrick said he is not sure there was anything hunters and habitat managers could do to manage for the down year. Mast crops are affected by the weather and are cyclic. He said one thing people might notice early on is the casting of mast such as acorns, hickory nuts and pine cones as trees try to protect themselves during this stress period. 

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“It could affect the squirrels. They may not be as fit in reproduction, and there will be a high demand for nutrition during lactation. There may be some nutritional effects, but they will find things to eat,” Hamrick said. “Vegetation is under drought stress, so there could have been a negative effect on the summer breeding period. The biggest effect will be in the mast crop. Acorns are starting to drop, and if we have a bad mast crop, we could possibly be looking at some lingering effects going into next year.” 

The lack of a hard mast could change the squirrel’s feeding habits, and the perception of hunting quality could change. Squirrels will eat whatever they can find during a bad mast crop and are known to eat bark and whatever insects they can find. 

Hamrick said the winter could be hard on squirrels if there are not as many nuts and fruit available. Deer harvest strategies call for taking more deer during a lean year so there is less competition for resources. He said it would likely not be detrimental to take squirrels within the bag limit. 

“You can look at it by taking the squirrels in the bag limit or get as many squirrels through the winter,” Hamrick said. “They will have a stressful year and quite a few will be lost. Reducing stress a little bit by taking squirrels isn’t a bad idea. It might be a challenge to find the squirrels this year but there is no reason to stay off of them. They may try to move to new areas but it is hard to say what will happen.” 

Unlike deer or turkeys, supplemental feeding of squirrels through food plots is not fully practical. Squirrels could utilize standing corn and seed-producing plants such as oats and wheat as food sources. Hamrick said squirrels might eat more seed heads from plants this year. 

Mississippi’s squirrel season opens Sept. 30 this year due to the Oct.1 start date falling on a Sunday. The daily bag limit is eight squirrels. Be sure to check local public land regulations before hunting in the Homochitto National Forest and nearby Wildlife Management Areas.

The National Weather Service forecasts the drought is likely to persist in Lincoln County through the fall.