Why Do Squirrels Cross the Road?

  • A bald eagle carries a squirrel over the White River in Royalton, Vt., Tuesday, October 2, 2018. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • A West Lebanon, N.H., squirrel is photographically captured by the author. (Dan Mackie photograph)

For the Valley News
Friday, October 05, 2018

This is the year of the squirrel. Here in the Upper Valley, squirrels have been darting about in a mass frenzy, like the big dance scene of Footloose.

Sadly, many of the scurrying furry rodents are meeting a bad end. Facebook postings and actual newspaper stories provide reports of a squirrel-pocalypse, or squirrel-mageddon. Roadkill incidents are frequent, the stuff of a Stephen King story. You could imagine that a creepy clown leader is dispatching his hordes on suicidal missions, for reasons that will be revealed on page 1,537. You could do that, but you would be wrong.

I always say that when something is up in the squirrel world, follow the acorns.

Squirrel experts apparently agree. They claim the squirrel population boomed this year because acorns and assorted nuts were bountiful last year. More food equals more squirrels, and not because acorns are an aphrodisiac. In the natural world, fattening up is a sound survival strategy, so don’t talk to me about paleo diets.

It’s curious how little human sympathy the flattening of a squirrel elicits. We assume there is a squirrel surplus, so there is no sense of the tragic. We, or most of us, mourn deer killed by cars, moose doomed by ticks, bears evicted from Hanover. All of these fates run counter to our sense of the natural order of things, or fair play.

Our empathy deficit may also be because we know so little of the inner lives of squirrels, who dwell among us but skitter away without the briefest of introductions. They startle as if all people are homicidal Freddy Kruegers, which is not entirely true.

According to Wikipedia, the prime source for indolent scholars, the word squirrel can be traced to the Old French escurel, and before that, Greek and Roman words. No doubt they witnessed the fall of Troy and the downfall of Julius Caesar. Et tu, squirrel?

Squirrels are said to have good vision, a fine sense of touch, large incisors for gnawing and “cheek teeth’’ for grinding. All this without vision or dental plans.

Wikipedia also provides this chestnut: Squirrels are a rarity among mammals, in that they can descend a tree with their head facing downward. “They do so by rotating their ankles 180 degrees, enabling the hind paws to point backward and thus grip the tree bark from the opposite direction.” Readers, don’t try this at home!

The road crossings of squirrels, like those of chickens, raise deep questions. “Why” most prominently comes to mind.

A couple of weeks ago we, that is, my wife Dede and I, were speeding down I-93 in Massachusetts. We were on a six-lane stretch with a grass median. Ahead of me, a squirrel darted into the open right-hand lane, reached the midway point of it, then looked back into oncoming traffic with wide eyes. Using the squirrel equivalent of probability theory, he assessed his chances of safe passage with moderate-to-heavy traffic at nil. He nevertheless lurched forward, thought better of it, froze again, as if something in the equation could have changed, then performed a whole-body twitch and hightailed it back to the woods.

I don’t know what he thought was on the other side, perhaps a squirrel paradise — an all-you-can-eat nut buffet or lovely squirrel maidens — but that squirrel was going to reach it only if there is an escurel afterlife.

My observations of squirrels from our dining room windows leave me unable to say whether they are intelligent. They are certainly persistent, spending many hours trying to safe-crack the nearby squirrel-proof bird feeder. Thomas Edison used a similar approach toward inventing the light bulb, trying one thing and then another and another. He gets respect, squirrels do not.

There is great scientific controversy over how successful squirrel hoarders are when they store, or “squirrel away,’’ food. As for winter stores, nut shrinkage is considerable, according to the Smithsonian Science Education Center, which says about one-quarter “is stolen by thieves!” I myself wouldn’t have added the exclamation point: It’s no surprise it’s a jungle out there.

Memory lapses may also be a factor; It is alleged that squirrels, unlike elephants, forget. Smithsonian cited a University of Richmond study that claimed fuzzy-brained squirrels “fail to recover up to 74 (percent) of the nuts they bury.” At age 65, I’m not going to be haughty about that. I wouldn’t want the University of Richmond looking too closely into my daily meanderings.

After all this research, I tried to look at the Great Squirrel Massacre of 2018 from their point of view. I imagine that squirrels would offer a counter-narrative: highway traffic is up, drivers are texting more, automobile safety devices are human-centric and do not take squirrels into account. They might complain of human overpopulation, which is a fair point.

As for why squirrels cross the road, I am sure they have their reasons, and I am willing to leave it at that. I do not truly grieve their losses, though I respect their ability to adapt as the human population booms and booms, without so much as a bust.

But all winning streaks run out, as the plight of the squirrels makes abundantly clear. Hoarding and greed can get you only so far, especially when something big is bearing down on you.

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Dan Mackie lives in West Lebanon. He can be reached at dan.mackie@yahoo.com.