Otto: Squirrel season is off and running

Published: Saturday, Feb. 2, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT • Updated: Monday, Feb. 4, 2013 11:40 a.m. CDT

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I know it’s Groundhog Day and all but, golly, have you noticed what’s up with squirrels lately?

Not so long ago, they were hopping about in minimalist survival mode: foraging, keeping an eye out for predators and trying to stay as warm and dry as their furry little bodies – and fluffy tail that doubles as a blanket and umbrella – would let them.

But, boy, things sure have changed these past few days. Every squirrel in town seems to be engaged in a giant game of tag. Or is it keep away?

Actually, it’s follow the leader, and it’s the Sciurus version of “The Dating Game.”

In our area, midwinter is mating season for squirrels (and our nocturnal neighbors the raccoons, opossums and skunks, plus coyotes and foxes). And because squirrels are a ubiquitous part of our suburban landscape, their exploits are hard to miss.

Take the other day, for instance. I received an email from alert reader Larry Bollaert, who witnessed, as he put it, really “squirrelly” activities.

“These wild creatures sure put on a show for me today in my backyard,” he wrote. “I was doing my dishes and looking out the window where I have feeders for the birds and squirrels. Anyway, there were many gray squirrels ... they were going nuts chasing each other around and around, up and down the tree branches, jumping from tree to tree. Two were chasing after one and then it reversed direction and so on. I had a good laugh and couldn’t keep up with their antics.”

Larry’s experience reminded me of one I’d had a few years ago, right about this time of year, when I watched four male squirrels in relentless pursuit of a female. After much chasing, the female ducked into a convenient tree cavity and disappeared. The boys paused momentarily, shaking their tails, then quickly began a chase of their own as the dominant suitor did his best to shoo away the other three.

Given our human perspective on courtship – wine, roses, candlelit dinners and Barry White crooning soft and low – it might seem as though male squirrels would do well to put on the brakes and pitch their woo at a slower pace.

But from squirrels’ point of view, speed is of the essence. Females are receptive to male advances for only a short period of time, as little as eight hours twice each year. And, even though many males may join in the chase, only one will be allowed to pass his genes along.

Remember the big Twinkie rush that occurred back in November, when Hostess Brands announced its intentions to shut down? Sugar fiends rushed to stores to pick up their packs of crème-filled goodness. Early birds are rewarded, while latecomers were left – just like those male squirrels by the tree cavity – out in the cold.

Although the Hostess scare is over, squirrel mating activity soon will near its winter peak. Keep an eye open for their easy-to-observe behaviors over the next couple of weeks, and again in June, when the second round of the reproductive cycle occurs. And remember, when you see a bunch of squirrels running across the yard ... it’s probably not Twinkies they’re after.

• Pam Otto, who always preferred Hostess Cupcakes to Twinkies, is the manager of nature programs and interpretive services for the St. Charles Park District. She can be reached at 630-513-4346 or potto@stcparks.org.

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