Fox Squirrels are not terribly social beasts. They will tolerate other squirrels when food is aplenty and have even been known to snuggle in a group nest when winter conditions require it, but they are basically loners. Because they are only mildly successful at road-crossing they have to get together with the opposite sex, from time to time, in order to replace those flattened individuals that don’t make it. I am, of course, talking about mating. The Fox Squirrel calendar is marked for two such mating periods.
You might have noticed that these chunky yellow-brown rodents are very active this time of year and therefore more visible (both alive and in flattened versions). The period from January through early February marks the first mating season of the year – at least for Michigan Fox Squirrels. Yes, it may seem odd that the bitter cold environment of mid-winter provides the setting for the Squirrel Dating Game. Hey, we are talking about squirrels here. The other mating period is in April/May but that event is hard to witness.
Females are only receptive, or in estrus, for one precious day. A male will make every effort to be around any given female when this special day hits and will follow her for days. More often than not, several males will pursue an individual female. This un-natural congregation leads to an “angry squirrel complex” known among mammalogists as a “mating bout.” True to the name, the males will jockey (bout) for position and actively chase each other away. To them, this is what it’s all ‘bout (squirrel humor). A bout session ends in love and squirrel love only lasts for about 13 seconds.
I’m not sure what kind of bouting preceded the event I witnessed a week or so ago when I saw two squirrels “doing it” in my backyard. There were only two squirrels present. It was 11:00 am and the ambient temperature was 17 degrees F (that’s aboot -8 degrees C for you Canadians out there). The two apparently had just attempted to “do it” when I first spotted them. They were grooming themselves as if nothing happened. But, be warned, that when two consenting squirrels groom themselves in close proximity to each other that means something is in the air.
One, the female as it turns out, was on a horizontal branch and the male was clinging to the main trunk. They were casting glances at each other, however. Winter Fox Squirrels are fuzzy little affairs. This couple looked more like teddy bears than a squirrely pair. Fat and furry, in prime winter condition, these animals showed no signs of any winter stress.
Since I was watching them through a window on my back porch I could not hear any vocalizations but I suspect there were some barks and purrs going on. One text even refers to a peculiar “sucking sound” that accompanies Fox Squirrel courtship (blowing kisses perhaps?). I could see body language. Apart from the glances, there were tail flicks and body posturing. When the female turned herself away from the advancing male and lifted her tail over her back, I knew the sparks would soon fly.
The male approached the female slowly and snuggled with her. He groomed her fur for a short while before mounting. The actual event only took a few seconds – as I mentioned earlier, the average timing is only about 13 seconds for this act. My view of the squirrels was impaired by a diagonal branch and I grew suspicious that this was no accident. Squirrels usually mate up in the trees but often chose locations that are a hidden somewhat from the prying eyes of voyeuristic photographers. How they knew the limb was between me and them I will never know.
Soon after the joining was completed, the female ran off and jumped over to the Norway spruce (to spruce up no doubt). The male followed her route, but not in earnest. After a successful mating a copulating plug forms in the female which ends her romantic stage. Males go off looking for other un-plugged prospects and the plugged females begin their 44 day gestation period. Sometime around mid-March she will bear a litter of 3-4 young and hope that at least one of them eventually makes it across the road.