Squirrels really aren't trying to commit suicide

Eastern fox squirrels can be seen racing across streets morning and evening in Victoria, during early spring. As they zigzag, they run the risk of being hit by a car or truck. Most will be males chasing a female as part of courting behavior. Though their zigzag pattern seems to be intentionally suicidal, it's not. It's the squirrel's natural predator-evasion pattern - to spoil the aim of predatory birds.
  • Eastern Fox Squirrel

    Squirrel mating

    Squirrels mate twice a year - December-January and June-July

    Females produce a scent to attract males

    Multiple males chase a female in a squirrel mating ritual - through treetops when possible, but ...

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  • Eastern Fox Squirrel

    Squirrel mating

    Squirrels mate twice a year - December-January and June-July

    Females produce a scent to attract males

    Multiple males chase a female in a squirrel mating ritual - through treetops when possible, but on the ground between tree groves.

    Males do not fight, but dominant males are immediately behind females and are most likely to mate with the female

    Squirrel behavior

    Squirrels' peripheral vision is as sharp as their focal (straight-ahead) eyesight - can see what's above and off to each side without moving its head. But ability to adjust to size and speed of modern vehicles seems limited. Such excellent eyesight and a diurnal habit (particularly active just after dawn and just before dusk - during winter mating) results in zigzagging across streets during morning and evening rush hours

I have to ask if anyone besides me has noticed that spring has brought about bizarre behavior from the squirrels. Seems every time I drive anywhere, three or four of them run headlong into the road, just in front of my jeep, intent on committing suicide.

I have named them terrorist squirrels. Or better yet, al Qaeda squirrels, because they obviously are on a suicide mission and mean harm to all Americans.

They will cause us bodily harm from slamming on the brakes to keep from hitting them. Theirs is not a really big mission. They can only get to us, one at a time.

But, get to us, they will. You can almost hear them laughing as they scamper up the tree on the side of the road opposite where they were before you passed them in your vehicle, heart pounding from the near miss.

No matter how carefully I watch, one always manages to dart out at the last second. Almost always right beneath my tires, so that it is nearly impossible for me to stop. Inevitably, one must be a squished squirrel.

But, oh please, no. I just could not live with myself if I did that to one of those cute little furry critters. So, I drive ever so slowly, and ever so carefully. Watching all the while all along the side of the street.

Oh, if you must get scientific, then so be it, but it is so much more fun to picture them on a mission of world-wide consequences. They are, of course, mating at this time of year, which most likely accounts for their behavior.

Also, if this is just mating, it is my contention that someone should teach them "safe sex". Is it really worth risking life and limb with a mad dash across a busy street to reach your sweetheart on the other side? It would appear that it is - to a squirrel, at least.

So, perhaps they are not really Kamikaze squirrels ... just little furry critters in love.

Some science of the terrorist/kamikaze squirrels - Squirrels have adopted a diurnal life style; they're most active around dawn and dusk - which happen to be during our winter rush hours.

Jon H. Kaas, a comparative neuroscientist at Vanderbilt University says of the squirrel, "Its primary visual cortex is huge." That means it has great straight-ahead vision, and its peripheral vision's just as sharp. Squirrels can see what's above and beside them without head movement. However, others have noted that their ability to adjust to modern vehicles' size and speed seems limited.

And their evasive maneuvers, zigzagging, may be very effective in throwing off a predatory hawk's aim but is less useful in avoiding the four wheels of a car or truck. Bad news for male squirrels extremely intent - at top speed - while pursuing a female during winter mating season.

Squirrels' zigzagging behavior is a great defensive maneuver to throw off an aerial predator's aim, but bad news for squirrels dodging in front of cars and trucks

Sharon Flood, a Mid-Coast Chapter, Texas Master Naturalist, contributed this story. Paul and Mary Meredith are master naturalists. Contact them at paulmary0211@sbcglobal.net.