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Squirrel crazy When courtship behavior kicks in, bushytails get goofier than usual

By Steve Vantreese

When squirrels are at their most sedate status, they're still squirrels.

The arboreal rodent we know as the gray squirrel is famous for being herky-jerky, scampering, fidgety, fussy, erratic and all those other things opposed to calm. A biological reality is behind our tendency to refer to unpredictable, flighty folks as squirrelly. Probably nothing is more squirrelly than a squirrel, right?

About the only times a squirrel settles down is when it's trying to hide from a predatory threat, it's asleep or it's dead. And presently â “ as if they weren't already â “ gray squirrels are apt to get really crazy.

What's going on in winter, usually peaking in mid January, is the gray squirrel breeding phase. It happens twice a year, another one occurring in the spring, but the winter phase is more visible as it occurs when the leaves are off the trees.

We might see some parallels between a breeding season for squirrels and the deer rut. Both are periods of increased movement that are dictated by the ripening of females toward the short time during which they can be impregnated with a new generation of critters.

Yet, the squirrel's breeding phase and the related behavior is much more concentrated and to the point than that of white-tailed deer. It's more slapstick, too.

It starts when a would-be mama squirrel instinctively senses that she's about to enter the estrus period during which she can be bred. Likely more often than not, it's the first reproductive session for the lady squirrel. That's because the average age of a gray squirrel in the wild is just about one year â “ and the squirrel doesn't become sexually mature until about one year of age.

The young squirrels that were born back in the fall generally won't participate in the winter mating festivities. And often, not that many in the population are two-year-olds or older. Consequently, those that are old, experienced hands at the courtship game are scarce.

But no matter. If you're a sexually mature squirrel, you just get as crazy as your instincts and genetics tell you. It's ingrained carnal biology, not rocket science.

When a female starts to get wind of her developing fertility, she lets the neighborhood guys get wind of her. Wildlife scientists say female squirrels going into estrus emit a scent that might be detected by males hundreds of yards away. Downwind in the adjacent wooded area, the boys get the message.

It has been suggested that females also broadcast the news of impending estrus, calling in an identifiable fashion from a tree. If that's true, it would have to be some kind of specific mating call that the lady squirrel issues.

I can't say I've ever heard that. But maybe you have to be a squirrel to recognize the sexy message.

Anyway, when the girl squirrel's time is getting right and she puts out the word, the number of suitors that show up mostly depends on the neighborhood's squirrel population. Perhaps a single male responds, maybe a couple, or it could be eight or 10 that come knocking at the door.

When multiple applicants appear, it tends to get a little crazier. Generally, the build-up to the actually breeding is a little pursuit and retreat as the lady feigns some hard-to-get discretion. That's really just nature making sure that the male is right for the job, that he's got the right stuff to further the species.

The pursuit really goes into high gear when several would-be breeding males attend. It develops into a goofy, single-file chase in which the female scampers up, down and around trees. It's first up one, maybe jumping across branches to another tree, then down and through the leaves on the ground to yet another tree.

The males follow in a nose-to-tail string that may stretch a dozen rodents long. The more dominant male squirrels get the forward places in the single-file line. The number one male typically is number two, just behind the female, in the chase line. If males contest spots in line, a little fussing and fighting may occur as they re-establish a pecking order that probably already exists in that squirrel neighborhood.

When the female is ready, the chase breaks off and the male that has asserted the most dominance gets the lascivious spoils of the pursuit.

They don't live happily ever after as mates. Indeed, the actual breeding may just be a flicker in time, and the fellow doesn't hang around after that. They don't "nest" together.

In fact, a female may mate subsequently, within minutes, with another pursuer of next-best dominance. That's just nature's way of being sure a female doesn't go unbred.

From there, a female goes through a gestation period of about 44 days before depositing a litter of two or three (sometimes more) babies in a tree den hole or leaf nest.

Squirrel hunters may use the occasional breeding chase to their advantage. It's hard to miss the racket and spectacle they present. And a hunter might find more than a limit of squirrels chasing each other, running around some tree in barber-pole fashion.

Squirrels aren't in short supply and won't be compromised by the taking of critters from breeding chases. However, a hunter might want to pluck males from the back of the line first. They're probably not going affect the litter prospects anyway.

Steve Vantreese , a freelance outdoors writer, can be contacted at outdoors@paducahsun.com.

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