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Rabbits and Squirrels Anyone?

The rabbit bolted out of the brush a good 50 yards in front of me and out across the icy snow to a tree line; it never stopped until it reached the heavy brush at the far end. The rabbit was so far out in front, I never even bothered to raise my 20-gauge pump. The rest of the day my hunting buddy George and I experienced that same scenario over and over again — too far away on a dead run for a decent shot. Even the beagles had a tough time picking up a scent, and we ended the day with the rabbits: six and the hunters: zero. In years past, we have had some productive days afield, but this was not one of them. We both agreed though that it was still good to get out to enjoy some good old-fashioned small game hunting even though we had nothing to add to the freezer.

Hunting rabbits and squirrels was my introduction to hunting. I remember well my first successful hunt as a young man; it wasn’t much, but that first squirrel is probably what led to my lifelong pursuit of an assortment of wild game over the years that followed. In those early years, I didn’t have a dog, but that didn’t keep me from chasing rabbits either. I would often walk a friend’s fields and fencerows and kick brush piles, and it wasn’t unusual to be rewarded with a limit of four rabbits.

I suspect that chasing after rabbits and squirrels is something a lot of hunters my age did when they were younger. Granted, they are not as glamorous or alluring as wild turkeys and deer, but they were still great fun to hunt, and I still enjoy an occasional outing for these small game animals even now.

The fact is, however, less and less people are interested in pursuing small game animals — especially squirrels and rabbits. The numbers showing the decline in small game hunting is quite surprising. According to Pennsylvania Game Commission surveys, the number of rabbit hunters has fallen by 81 percent since 1995. The number of squirrel hunters has dropped by 69 percent, and 57 percent of the hunters have stopped hunting pheasants.

Now I realize that the drop in pheasant hunters has a lot to do with the disappearance of our once abundant wild pheasant population and fewer rabbits in some areas may also contribute to lower hunter numbers as well. The decline in those hunting squirrels, however, is not likely a consequence of lower squirrel numbers. So why are less young people interested in hunting small game these days?

I suppose there are a number of reasons for the decline, including the loss of suitable habitat due to development, posted land that can no longer be hunted, schedules that are too busy to allow time for hunting, young people’s overabundant sports schedules and a number of other reasons. Certainly having less game to hunt also adds to the decline in interest, such as our pheasant situation. Even grouse seem to be in somewhat of a population crisis. The decline in the population of certain game species is always an interesting topic. A number of factors probably contribute to lower populations of any given species besides those already mentioned. Certainly, predation is high on the list, and we do have a growing population of predators like coyotes, bobcats, feral cats, hawks and even eagles.

I suppose the topic of less interest in small game hunting would not be complete without also mentioning a change in young people’s thinking and orientation today. Certainly, there is far greater involvement in social media and all the technical paraphernalia that comes with it. It’s also true that young people today have far more opportunities to hunt the more glamorous game like deer and turkeys than we did in the past. After all, if your first hunt was a deer hunt and you killed a dandy buck why bother with a little gray squirrel?

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