When a Squirrel Sneezes

Squirrel Chase

Have you ever seen squirrels chasing one another, sometimes several at a time? A typical scene during certain seasons is of three or more critters scrambling up and down the trunk of a tree, with much gleeful hiding, stopping, listening, and flicking of tails.

What explains this? Well, it is part of an elaborate mating game that lasts over two weeks. The process kicks off when a female is almost fertile. It takes at least two weeks of vigorous exercise for her to ovulate–nature’s way of forcing the males to compete by chasing her for that long!

Day after day she will lead the pack, with hopeful males trailing and puffing away on this marathon. The chase is so gruelling that the young and weak males fall behind, leaving only the strongest as finalists.

During this time, the female is carefully observing the contestants. She is looking for the strongest, fittest one to be the father. Isn’t Nature a sly one?

Finally, when the female is in heat, she sneaks up close to the male she has chosen, and she signals his success by–are you ready?–sneezing! So next time you hear a squirrel sneeze, you’ll know what is going on.

One December I was observing this ritual for over two weeks. I had heard the female sneeze, so I was looking out at the snowy patio when the amorous pair tumbled right in front of me. They were playful and sweet; really quite affectionate. It was exactly winter solstice: Christmas day. The promise of new life to come.