Charlie Portlock looks inside a squirrel’s skull to continue our anatomical education
Late last year, we bisected a rabbit’s skull in order to learn more about this animal’s anatomy as well as debunk some enduring myths about shot placement. It’s now time to do the same for the grey squirrel. If you think that a rabbit’s brain looks small at 25 yards then a squirrel’s is even smaller, but only by about 15%. Squirrels actually have a significantly larger brain to body mass ratio which reflects their adaptability, diverse diet and legendary problem-solving abilities.
Grey squirrels have a reputation for being strong, robust creatures and whilst it’s true that they’re more tenacious than rabbits, a shot to the brain will kill them just as effectively. When wounded, they will show few outward signs of pain or distress, but will run onwards and upwards until they reach safety. Howeve, this does not mean that they’re ‘ tough’. They will, of course, be in a great deal of pain, but like many small mammals have evolved to keep silent in an effort to avoid detection. A more accurate description might be that they’re vigorous and it’s this twitching, irrepressible vitality that leads hunters to see them as being difficult to kill cleanly. This is a myth. If our shot placement is solid, they’ll drop; if it isn’t they’ll run, so let’s not fall into the trap of using their ‘ hardiness’ as an excuse for our own poor shooting. ( Well said! Ed.)
Although rabbits are easy enough to come by at most rural butchers, squirrels are much harder (at least in my neck of the woods) and although there’s a market for them, the effort to meat ratio is high. For this reason and no other, I was forced to make a trip over to the dark side and use my 12 bore to take two animals at a late season pheasant feeder. Although the spring is edging closer, natural food sources are still scarce. If your ground is shot, it’s very likely that the keeper will continue to feed the birds throughout the year in order to hold them in the area, making it easier to round up the hens for the breeding season. Lying in wait near any consistent food source at this time of year should prove productive and can save you wandering around your permission looking for hotspots. It’s worth remembering that squirrels will always follow the calories.
I’ll say this for the shotgun – it was efficient, and I took two animals for the freezer with minimal meat damage using 28g/6 cartridges at about 25 yards. Both were stone dead before they hit the ground with the skulls intact, which was the entire
“let’s not fall into the trap of using their ‘ hardiness’ as an excuse for our own poor shooting”
point. It was good to be out with the shotgun but I won’t be doing it often because I found the shooting side of things to be almost as boring as my experience with a PCP; very little skill is involved in shooting stationary targets in this way and it felt pretty unsporting. The necessity of ear defenders also stripped me of the auditory enjoyment of being out in the woods and made me rely on my eyes a lot more, which I found interesting from the perspective of environmental awareness, but ultimately frustrating. In the end, I just sat with them around my neck listening for the signature sound of a squirrel coming through the trees before I put them on and took my shot.
After this, traitorous trip sideways, I was left with the intact heads of two adult males that I froze and then sawed in two with the help of legendary under-keeper Gwyndaf Jolly. It’s worth noting that I broke two blades in a row after they became stuck and snapped. If you’re tempted to try this for yourself, you’ll need to keep the blade in motion at all times to prevent it becoming wedged and immovable; stop for more than a second and you’ll have problems.
The shape of the squirrel’s brain is reflected in the low-sloping contours of the skull. As you can see from the photos, the squirrel’s brain is smaller and more oblong than a rabbit’s, but inhabits the same relative space, and a shot placed between the ear and the eye will kill cleanly, but aiming slightly lower and further back just forward of the base of the ear seems like the optimum point of aim.
We often use the term ‘ head shot’ to denote ethical shot placement. This is misleading because the head is relatively large and the brain isn’t.
A solid shot to the brain will ensure instant death without suffering.
As with rabbits, a shot to the brain as the animal presents in profile is by far the most ethical and efficient. The small kill zone is largest in this position, as can clearly be seen, and the risk of wounding is minimised. This is a common shot because the squirrel often presents in this manner when moving along branches – by far the best option. Shots to the base of the skull are also possible from this perspective, but are not recommended.
This is not an effective angle to shoot from. A perfectly placed shot from this perspective would certainly kill, but the risk of wounding is far too high. The kill zone is smaller than a five-pence piece and dropped shots will shatter teeth or enter the nose and soft palate. Near misses risk hitting the animal in the eye which could, depending on the elevation, cause a great deal of pain without immobilising it – one to avoid. Much simpler to wait for the animal to present in profile.
In my experience, head or base- of-skull shots on squirrels are quite unusual. This is mainly because the squirrel arches its back when feeding, rendering its hindquarters higher than its head. The position of the tail normally conceals any view of the skull and probably serves to camouflage the animal during feeding by breaking up its outline. This relaxed tail position is in contrast to the flicking and flagging seen when the animal is alarmed, in which case it’s probably facing you anyway - a valid shot, but rare.
With a legal-limit rifle, body shots are not recommended. The squirrel’s physiology and manner of feeding mean that from most angles its forelegs usually cover its vital organs. Even though a close-range shot behind the armpit can penetrate the rib cage, legal limit rifles simply lack the stopping power for this kind of shot. It’s far more than likely that the shot will wound, and unlike deer, squirrels will normally attempt to gain height when in danger, meaning that a slow and painful death is likely without any chance of recovery. In short, if you have to ask yourself if the shot is on, it isn’t. You should just react.
‘ The freeze’ is probably a common sight for those readers who hunt squirrels. Most often seen when an animal is head shot on the trunk of a tree, it tenses and grips the bark hard, sometimes needing a second shot to dislodge it. Only a dead squirrel will react like this because the rapid engagement of the muscles and limbs is a spasmodic reaction to severe brain trauma. The animal is not alive but ‘clinging on’ and there’s only the need to wait whilst gravity does its work. Learning to recognise this is useful to avoid wasted shots.
It’s difficult to come by anatomical photographs of rabbits and squirrels. After reading through veterinary textbooks, reams of hunting literature, websites, books and academic papers, there wasn’t one cross-sectional photo of a rabbit or a squirrel to be found. Even an email to the archivist at the Royal Veterinary College in London proved fruitless. Perhaps this is because these creatures have such little financial value in comparison to horses or livestock. Whatever the reason, we should always know exactly what were shooting at, and I hope that the above will help readers to further that knowledge in some small way.
There’s certainly much more to be explored within the topics of quarry anatomy, animal pain and postmortem movement, and the more informed we are on these subjects the better. Uncomfortable as the realities might be, it’s important that we know as much as possible about our quarry in order to ensure a clinical kill and, dare I say it, to enjoy our time in the woods; nobody enjoys losing an animal. A future article featuring cross sections of brain-shots on the three main quarry species is planned and when combined with specialist veterinary knowledge, this should help us to understand exactly what’s going on when we make that perfect shot. Best of luck in the field, Charlie.
“the squirrel’s brain is smaller and more oblong than a rabbits, but inhabits the same relative space”
Above Inset: If you want clean kills, aim here Right: A squirrel’s brain (right) is slightly smaller than a rabbit’s
Main: Those squirrels are out there damaging the countryside as you read this
Left: Note the brain stem traveling back and down the neck
Right: I used a shotgun to avoid damaging the skulls
Right: I found the remains of foxpoached turkey