Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

December 15, 2008

Getting Squirrely

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 9:22 pm

One thing I’ve noticed, and no doubt you have also, is that there are an incredible number of dead Fox Squirrels on the road lately. Squirrels certainly cannot be considered as brilliant when it comes to road-crossing abilities – after all, most are top graduates from the Opossum School of Roadside Ambulation (OSRA). A dead squirrel on the road is as natural as the center line itself. But, I would have to say that they are currently outdoing their marsupial teachers as pavement pancakes.

Some would say this phenomenon is due to a population explosion brought about by global warming. Polar Bears, forced by rising waters to take to the mainland, have started to munch down on the squirrels natural predators.  The squirrels have reacted to this new found freedom by making lots and lots of baby squirrels. Unleashed onto the world in prodigious numbers, the poor little things are being slaughtered by our senseless automobiles. The only way to stop this is to buy more Granola.

Well, there are several things wrong with this theory – not the least of which is that vehicular homicide is the chief cause of death among Fox Squirrels. Cars could therefore be considered as their chief predator. Polar bears have yet to be seen rampaging through car lots or destroying auto dealerships.

I have a better theory based on facts. This is Fox Squirrel mating season. Squirrels are becoming hot-blooded because of raging hormones and not due to a perceived global rise in temperature. Stupefied by lust, males charge randomly (more random than usual) across yards, woodlots, and roads while seeking dates. They don’t stop to think. My reference to increasing numbers of non-thinking squirrels who end up with “X’s” in their eyes refers only to a short term, but annular, phenomenon. By “lately,” I mean within the last few months. The same thing happened last year at this time. Life has a way of repeating itself. Life has a way of repeating itself.

It is odd that Fox Squirrels choose this time of year to “do it.”  Beginning in December, the winter breeding cycle peaks in mid-January and dies down by February. In truth, they have two mating seasons per year. The other period runs from May to June. The spring season makes more sense as a time to get frisky, but squirrels have no need for sense.

Apart from the rise in road kill levels, you’ll notice a lot of running about as an indicator of this winter love season. Several males will attempt to woo a single female. One guy will lay claim to his queen and dutifully chase off any rival princes. He will also chase his queen around until she relents to his advances. The overall result of all these shenanigans is that there are squirrels darting all over the place like animated mice. No one is sure who is chasing whom and for what reason. About the time they do figure things out, they are in the middle of the road and…well, you know what happens.

One primary feature of a squirrel love chase is the “round and round the tree we go” routine (see here). Two lovers, haters, or whatevers, will spiral around a trunk. Often one will suddenly stop and confront its pursuer. When this happens, they will spend a brief period of time signaling each other with wildly flipping tails. Oddly enough, one of the typical tail poses consists of a question mark as if to say “what gives?” (see here).

It so happens that visible talk is a key component of the winter mating rite. When it comes down to it, squirrels are only as good as their tails. The very Genus name of the group, Sciurus, means “shadow tail” in Greek. They also use their sizable appendages (see here) as umbrellas and gyroscopes, but right now they are functioning as semaphore flags. It is too bad that they can’t figure out how to use them as traffic signals as well.

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