The Tree Squirrel Slam: How a Small-Game Biologist Tagged All 8 U.S. Bushytail Species

Johnathan O'Dell is the small game biologist for the Arizona Game and Fish Department. He's also a seriously dedicated squirrel hunter. O'Dell says he prefers hunting the bushy-tailed tree-dwellers over any other game because of the skill level required. "Being a really good squirrel hunter requires you to utilize all your collective hunting knowledge and skills," O'Dell says. "You have to read sign and the woods, listen for squirrels over other noise and stay alert for visual cues. You have to move swiftly yet silently or sit motionless for long periods. Squirrel hunting requires different techniques and tactics, depending on weather, season, behavior and location." If anyone would know, it's O'Dell. In 2009 he happened to be traveling to destinations within the ranges of all eight tree squirrel species native to the United States. "I seized the opportunity and made plans to try and take the U.S. Slam of tree squirrels," he says. "It wasn't until after I finished the hunts that I learned I may very well be the first hunter to ever accomplish this feat." This is O'Dell's first-person account of his journey to becoming the Squirrel Master of the U.S.
by Johnathan O'Dell September 25-26, Eureka, California, Western Gray Squirrel. The Western gray squirrel (Sciurus griseus; also known as the silver gray or Columbian gray squirrel) is found in the conifer and oak forests of California, Oregon, and Washington. Feeding on pine nuts, acorns, fungi, bark, and some plants, they bury acorns for winter (scatter-hoarding) like the Eastern gray squirrels do. They prefer forests with trees that have interlocking canopies to travel from place to place.
The first leg of the trip was to California where my friend Tim Carlson joined me. It's always best to share hunting trips with a friend and a second set of eyes comes in handy as well. Western gray squirrels are incredibly wary. They will hide or slip away if you don't stay quiet while walking game trails and hiking paths. We heard them knocking cones and twigs out of the trees and stalked in closer for a shot. We were both surprised at how big the Western gray squirrels were, and especially at the size of their beautiful tails.
September 25-26, Eureka, California, Douglas Squirrel. The Douglas squirrel (Tamiasciurus douglasii; also known as the spruce squirrel or chickaree) occupies the high elevation mixed conifer forests of California, Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia. When it's not eating pine cones, it's storing them in large caches called middens to eat during the cold winters of mountaintop living. The Douglas squirrel was the hardest to find good hunting information about. It was probably more luck than anything that they occupied the same woods where we found Western Grays. We only found them in Douglas fir trees, which were named by the same gentleman as the squirrel. Go figure. Because of their size, you'll need a few to make a good-sized meal.
October 9, Tonto Creek, Arizona, Arizona Gray Squirrel. The Arizona gray squirrel (Sciurus arizonensis) is found mostly in Arizona, ranging slightly into New Mexico and northern Sonora, Mexico. Actually a fox squirrel, the Arizona gray gets its name from its fur coat, which resembles that of the Eastern gray squirrel. Eating its favorite food, walnuts, will cause it to have characteristic stains on its paws, face, and belly from the juices. It also feeds on acorns, beech nuts, flowers, fungi, berries, and pine cone seeds. It prefers mountainous mixed forested riparian drainages.
I'm fortunate to live in Arizona where four of the eight species are found, and two of those species can only be found in my home state. One of those, the Arizona gray squirrel, can be challenging at times. I see more of them in the first part of the season (October) rather than later when they are more active because of ripened nuts hitting the ground. They can also flatten out on a branch and not move for over an hour, so you have to be patient to bag them. Be aware that black bears like the same food and habitats these squirrels do, so don't be surprised if you see one while waiting for a squirrel, I did.
October 24, Woods Canyon Lake, Arizona, Abert's Squirrel. The Abert's squirrel (Sciurus aberti; also known as the tassel-eared squirrel) can be found in the four corner states (AZ, CO, NM, UT) and Mexico. They are linked closely with Ponderosa pine as a food resource. They eat the inner bark of fresh growth and the pine cone seeds, and use the Ponderosa pine as their living quarters. Arguably the most handsome squirrel, they sport long ear tufts from fall through the spring breeding season.
Part of the world's largest contiguous Ponderosa pine forest covers Arizona's Colorado Plateau. In late October, I picked out a stand of mature trees with fresh clippings underneath and took a seat. Minutes later I had curious squirrel walking out on a branch to check me out. After the first one, two more fell without me having to budge an inch. Abert's squirrels are almost never found alone.
October 24, Woods Canyon Lake, Arizona, Red Squirrel. The red squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus; also known as the pine or barking squirrel, chickaree, mountain boomer, boomer, or fairy diddle) are found in mixed conifer forests from the west coast of Alaska to the east coast of Canada, the Rocky Mountains and surrounding areas as far south as Arizona and New Mexico, and from the Great Lakes states to the Appalachian Mountains as far south as Georgia. Like the Douglas squirrel, they store pine cones on the ground in earthen structures called middens. They are extremely territorial and will bark at any intruder for as long as they are annoyed by them. To bag a red squirrel in Arizona I moved out of the ponderosa into the spruce-firs and listened for their chatter, then I walked towards them, stopping when they quit talking. Once I invaded their space, out they'd come to yell at me. These are probably the least difficult of all the squirrels to hunt.
For me, the best way to find more eastern gray squirrels is to show up well before dawn, pick a spot with the best viewing ranges, take a seat and wait for shooting light. Of course I hit the ground running in late Novemeber while in Missouri. I scouted the woods the previous day looking not only for squirrels, but obvious signs of them like feeding sign (hulls of nuts). When you find a well used feeding tree, you'll want to be nearby the next morning.
November 14-15, Clinton Lake, Kansas, Eastern Fox Squirrel. The Eastern fox squirrel (Sciurus niger; also known as the fox, cat, red, or stump-eared squirrel) overlaps much of the same range as the Eastern gray with the exception of New England (where it is absent). They eat much the same foods as Eastern grays, but are not nearly as abundant or as densely populated. They prefer more open hardwood forested habitats with little to no undergrowth. I reached Kansas in late November and found the Eastern fox squirrel loves trees in windrows or wood lots next to grain fields. Usually you can spot their big leafy nest balls up in the trees after the leaves have fallen. I also found a few fresh hedge apples torn apart that let me know the nests were still active. I took an early morning front row seat and waited for the show.
December 10-13, Chiricahua Mountains, Arizona, Mexican Fox Squirrel. The Mexican fox squirrel (Sciurus nayaritensis; also known as the Nayarit, Apache, Apache fox, Chiracahua, Chiricahua fox, Chiricahua Mountain, or Chiricahua nayarit squirrel) lives in only one mountain range in Southeastern Arizona and then south through the mountains to Jalisco, Mexico. Very secretive and quiet, they feed on acorns, pine cones, bark, fungi, and fruits. They are not proficient climbers and are often only seen after falling from a tree.
Spot and stalk is the only way to go on Mexican fox squirrels.Their population density in Arizona is very low, so you have to cover a lot of ground to put yourself in contact with one. Consequently, once you take one you should quit hunting for the rest of the day because you'll wear yourself out looking for another. I spent 2 days trying to locate the one you see in this picture. It was a gratifying experience to finish off the slam with this squirrel.
Most books and magazine articles only cover how to hunt fox and gray squirrels in the East. If you are interested in Western squirrels, talk with the individual state small game biologists. They can provide you with information about where to go and how to hunt. In many states, if you pick your hunting spot carefully, you can bag more than one species in the same day. You just have to look for a diversity of forest types that are either mixed together or right next to each other.
I chose to do the slam with a Remington 870 was because it's a favorite gun of mine and also based on recommendations from taxidermists. Pellets do less damage to the pelt because I practice shooting squirrels with just the edge of the pattern, a technique known as "edging." I used #6 shot with an improved cylinder choke.
I always carry a Squirrel Buster call from Primos. I like it because it gives me a wide range of sounds that I can always mix with different hunting styles and techniques for each squirrel. More often than not, I first use it as a locator call to get the squirrels to bark and let me know where they are. Once I've found the branch prancer, I'll use it again to get them to stop moving or bring their attention to me.
Squirrels have some pretty amazing teeth to be able to chew through the hard shells of nuts and rip pine cones apart. A surefire way to find out if squirrels are in the area is to look on the ground for feeding sign. This includes nut shells, cone scales, clipped ends of branches and fruit skins.
I love squirrel hunting because it requires fundamental skills that apply to all hunting. Francis E. Sell said it best: "One cannot be a mediocre squirrel hunter, and at the same time a skillful deer hunter. The two techniques go together." Another benefit is there are no scores and every squirrel is a trophy. Squirrel hunting is pure and simple and anyone can do it.
With 8 native species of tree squirrels, 52 recognized subspecies, and myriad color varieties, you could spend the better part of a lifetime and still never get them all. The best part is that every state in the lower 48 has at least one squirrel within its boundaries.
The journey ended with :
13 days afield
3,248 air miles
2,472 road miles
4 states
27 squirrels taken
2 bear sightings
12 Breakfast burritos
1 roll of antacids (bad burrito)
1 box of cold/flu medicine (sitting in the rain too long)
1 pair of new boot laces.
$1800 total taxidermy
So what's next for me? Well, I suppose I'll keep chasing squirrels until the bitter end. I hear there are more tree squirrels in Mexico. Maybe I'll try for the North American Slam!

Johnathan O'Dell is a small game biologist in Arizona, which helps make him one heck of a squirrel hunter. In this story, he talks about the individual characteristics of all eight native squirrel species in the U.S. and explains the tactics he used to tag one of each in a single season.