Pound for Pound, the Toughest Animal in the World

For those who follow my column, you already know that I have provided my bona fides establishing that I have hunted and killed darn near everything that walks or crawls the face of the earth on two legs or four. It is with that in mind that I would like to present to you my candidate for the toughest animal in the world (pound for pound) to kill — bar none. It also happens to be my favorite target to pursue due to the sheer volume and shooting fun it provides.

Sciuridae Xerinae which is better known by the most often used term: the medium-sized ground squirrel. Ground squirrels are highly variable in size and habitat, but most are recognized by their remarkable ability to rise on their hind legs and stand comfortably, fully erect, for prolonged periods. They also tend to be far more gregarious than other squirrels, and live in colonies with complex social structures.

California Ground Squirrel, also known as the Beechey ground squirrel
The California Ground Squirrel, also known as the Beechey ground squirrel.

In Canada, they are often incorrectly referred to as gophers. However, they are not gophers. Pocket gophers, more commonly referred to simply as gophers, are true burrowing rodents but of the family Geomyidae. Like ground squirrels, they are also commonly known for their tunneling activities that can destroy farms and gardens. Although several ground squirrels in the distantly related family Sciuridae are often called “gophers,” they are not.

Unlike ground squirrels, gophers do not live in large communities and seldom find themselves above ground. Gophers are solitary outside of the breeding season, spending most of their time underground and alone. They aggressively maintain territories that vary in size, depending on the resources available. Males and females may share some burrows and nesting chambers if their territories border each other. In general, however, each pocket gopher inhabits its own individual tunnel system (very un-ground squirrel like. So, to my friends and neighbors to the north, “Stop calling them gophers!”

As previously stated in this column, I have hunted ground squirrels all over the world, but the species I have the most experience with is the California ground squirrel also known as Beechey ground squirrels. They are common in California, Oregon, Nevada, and Washington.

Caliber vs. Barrel Life

I have shot ground squirrels with centerfire rifles. There is no question that a fast moving bullet from a centerfire provides spectacular vaporization when the target is squarely hit. Among my favorite cartridges to vaporize ground squirrels are those moving around 3,500 feet per second, such as the .22-250 Remington, .220 Swift, and the .17 Remington — all with light-jacketed bullets of course. That said, no one appreciates turning ground squirrels into a fine red mist more than I do.

However, the problem on high-volume, hot barrel shoots, is that barrels can be shot out unless extreme restraint is exercised. So, realize there is only so much restraint to go around. I mean, who wants to change rifles every 5 shots or so, and then stop after every 25 shots to clean 5 rifles? I have done it, but the amount of restraint required is monumental, and I am far too weak for that exercise anymore.

photoshopped image showing an ground squirrel equal to the size of a lion
If ground squirrels were the size of lions, this would be the size differential between the projectile needed and the body size to even have a hope of stopping one.

The solution, of course, is to resort to the rimfires. I will admit that for many years I used the .22 LR. When used at ranges under 50 yards, the .22 LR is sufficient to harvest squirrels with well-placed shots. The problem… unless it’s a head shot, they often run or crawl away, requiring more hits (that they are also able to absorb) only to crawl to a hole and slide in. I have even seen other squirrels grab them and drag them to what I thought was safety… until I realized it was to get them someplace so they could dine on them. That’s right, squirrels eat each other when they can.

.22 WMR

After a couple of seasons of seeing how much punishment they could absorb — without expiring — I decided I needed something bigger that would allow fast follow-up shots. When I was young, during the Pleistocene Era, I was only able to find one semi-auto .22 Magnum rifle. It was the H&K 300, so I ordered one and decided a full-size scope was needed. I installed a Leupold 4.5–14x50AO.

Even with the .22 WMR, when ground squirrels are hit at ranges past say 50 to 75 yards, they may require more than one shot, unless it’s a head shot. Even shots that sever the spine don’t always stop them. When you consider the size of the projectile in proportion to their body size it would be like a person getting hit with a bullet the size of a watermelon. Please see the accompanying photos for comparison.

Ed LaPorta holding an oversized bullet
In front of the old homestead to show the size of the projectile that would hit me at 2,000 feet-per-second if I was a ground squirrel. No way could a person survive that.

If you doubt my premise, please consider this. In most African countries, the minimum size caliber to shoot lions is the .375, although many have been cleanly killed with smaller calibers. Compare the 300-grain .375 bullet’s size (to the size of the lion that we know it cleanly and consistently kills) to the size of the .22 Winchester Magnum Rimfire (WMR) 40-grain bullet in proportion to the average ground squirrel’s size.

For this comparison let’s consider the California Ground Squirrel that averages about 12 inches (head and body). We will not count the 5½- to 6-inch tail, and use a body weight from 10 to 26 ounces. Just imagine if lions required the same size projectiles as ground squirrels. The minimum caliber needed to hunt them would be an eight-inch howitzer. How practical would that be?

Once again, I say (and believe) that pound for pound, the ground squirrel is the toughest animal on earth to kill. I wish I had a nickel for every ground squirrel I’d seen take a good solid hit, only to have it run off and escape down its hole while appearing to be totally unfazed. If lions or grizzly bears were as tough as ground squirrels, they would undoubtedly rule the planet. Considering the damage that uncontrolled ground squirrel populations cause, they just might.

300 H&K Semi-Auto .22 Magnum rifle with a Leupold 4.5–14x50AO scope, sporting a Harry Lawson Thumb Hole Cochise Stock
The very accurate, and well used, 300 H&K Semi-Auto .22 Magnum rifle with a Leupold 4.5–14x50AO scope sporting a Harry Lawson Thumb Hole Cochise Stock that has taken thousands of the cuddly, cute, furry little creatures that carry the plague.

Ecological Nightmare

In that regard, you might want to ponder these facts; California ground squirrels’ mating season is early spring, and the females are very promiscuous. Individuals of one litter can be from multiple mates with one litter of 5–11 per year, and a gestation period of approximately one month. Too say they are prolific is an understatement.

It is of little wonder that ground squirrels are responsible for major damage well into the hundreds of millions of dollars throughout the states they inhabit. The most prevalent damage is done to crops adjacent to uncultivated areas where ground squirrels are not controlled. They also gnaw fruit and bark, girdle trunks, and scaffold limbs, and can kill trees or vines in a relatively short time. In addition to above ground damage, they damage roots, enabling fungal pathogens to infect trees. They often chew plastic irrigation lines, and their burrows contribute to soil erosion.

The most financial damage occurs due to their large and numerous burrow openings and soil mounds that are hard on farming equipment. The burrows can make mechanical harvesting especially difficult. Their burrows also divert irrigation water and have been known to cause severe damage to levy and water retention systems, causing hillside erosion and collapse.

Additionally, and not talked about much, ground squirrels can also pose a health risk to humans and other animals through the spread of sylvatic plague. One final problem caused when they are seeking to build nests. Squirrels can damage homes and structures by chewing openings through the siding and underneath eaves. They also may chew through unscreened chimneys and vents and build nests in those areas. Once in this “nest,” these busy rodents often chew on insulation and wires, which can create a fire hazard. Additionally, when squirrels run along utility power wires and cables, they can short out transformers.

A recent example of the damage ground squirrels are responsible for is the City of Pismo Beach, California. The most recent landslide and bluff failure at Memory Park — just one of several bluff failures to take place during a series of strong storms last winter — was a result of the erosion caused by the ground squirrel overpopulation problem. Why have they expanded beyond their habitats ability to support them is easy to answer. Residents and tourists alike stroll along the cliff side parks, and feed them because they are so cute. That ignorance at how habitat management and wildlife control works, triggers overpopulation, causing enormously irreversible problems that are expensive to repair.

Hillside erosion in Pismo Beach California due to ground squirrel burrowing erosion
The Pismo Beach, California most recent landslide and bluff failure at Memory Park which is just one of several bluff failures because of the erosion caused by the ground squirrel overpopulation problem.

Those are all good reasons to eliminate as many as you can while having a ton of fun and improving your marksmanship at the same time. So make a farmer your friend and offer your services… Back in the good old days during the time of the Squirrel Wars in California they would even give you boxes of .22 ammo to shoot them with. Stay safe, train often and practice, practice, practice!

Have you ever hunted squirrels out West? What about Eastern squirrels? Share your squirrel hunting story or tips in the Comment section.

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