STARKVILLE — They say the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. For Rick Hamrick, a small game biologist with the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fish and Parks, the acorn doesn’t fall far from the tree.
His father was a wildlife biologist, so the career was something he was familiar with. In 2007, he joined the MDWFP.
“There was nothing else I wanted to do. I grew up knowing about it,” Hamrick said. “Also, I grew up in a rural area and was an outdoorsy kid. I loved hunting squirrels when I was a kid. I enjoyed my graduate work with a quail project at the University of Georgia. Naturally, I leaned towards the small game side of wildlife biology.”
Small game hunting season begins on October 1st with squirrel season. Every year it’s a guessing game about how squirrel season will go. The trees begin to lose their leaves and nut crops as October rolls around. He said that he is starting to see the squirrels start to become active.
There is usually a lull in squirrel sightings in the summer due to their late summer breeding period and in the heat they are not as active. Watching the harvest of acorns, pecans, walnuts and pineapples is one way to forecast squirrel season, he said.
“You should look up what the mast crops should be. It’s starting to get to where we can tell how it could be,” Hamrick said. “I think the mast harvest was sporadic last year. Many times we have to guess. The mast harvest takes them through the winter, so it has an impact on the squirrels. I think last year we had a bad year compared to the year or two before.
It takes a few weeks of hunting season to get an estimate of the squirrel population, even then it’s a bit speculative. Harvest numbers are tied to nut crops. Pine seed is another often overlooked food source, she said.
Season start dates
Once upon a time, Mississippi had three zones with different squirrel season start dates, he said.
“It was produced based on the cycles of bat fly larvae,” Hamrick said. “They are parasites under the skin of squirrels and rabbits. It causes a little swelling. The zoning was an attempt to minimize the spread of the squirrels. They don’t usually hurt squirrels, but it was an attempt to reduce the occurrence of when those larvae were noticed.”
About a decade ago, MDWFP changed to a statewide start date. He said that people in different parts of Mississippi would ask why one would start before another. They stuck with the northern Mississippi start date of October 1. Rabbit season starts Oct. 16 because of the law, she said.
“For the most part, most of the squirrels are out of the nest in October,” Hamrick said. “We want to minimize any negative reproductive effects. Rabbits have their date fixed in legislative statutes. I tried to suggest that they change it to run at the same time as chipmunk season. It’s just a legislative process. For now, the rabbits have their own day.”
He said he couldn’t recommend a specific number of squirrels that hunters should hunt on his property. In part, this is due to the diversity of the landscape in Mississippi and other factors that affect properties.
Overall, he said there is no specific evidence to suggest gray squirrel overharvesting is a concern. Hunters can reduce the number of a chipmunk population in a confined area, she said.
“Their activities change throughout the year and we haven’t seen where the harvest has affected the population,” Hamrick said. “There’s enough forest to cover most of the state where you’re going to have connected populations. As you remove individuals, you create opportunities for others to move in. There is not much to suggest that the harvest has a detrimental effect on their numbers.”
There is one exception. Crops could have a different impact on fox squirrels due to loss of habitat quality, he said. Fox squirrels prefer the open conditions favored by agriculture. In the prairie, they use corn and oak trees along the edges of the field. They feel more comfortable outdoors, she said. However, dense pine plantations are not so favorable for fox squirrels.
People have a couple of options when hunting rabbits. He said that most people who are serious about hunting rabbits use dogs, but if you don’t have a dog, you can bring rabbits out of their hiding places in the fields.
Mid-October offers a great opportunity for hunters to harvest rabbits and squirrels in the same hunt.
While hunting rabbits, it is important to find their preferred cover of berry bushes and patches. One management tactic people might try is to mound brush with their lower limbs to give them a place to hide between feeding times.
“It’s a challenge if you’re looking for something challenging,” Hamrick said. “Practice safety. Know where you are shooting. If you’re with other people, you have to keep safety in mind.”
Small game hunting is not just limited to rabbits and squirrels. Quail, snipe, and woodcock are small game species that hunters may pursue during the fall.
“There is a renewed interest in small game hunting,” Hamrick said. “Hopefully the youth can manage the land for quail and other small game.”