Melanistic (black fur) eastern gray squirrel on a tree trunk, seemingly reaching for the sky

The Not-So-Sneaky Squirrel

Squirrels are known to spy on each other.

Usually, they’re watching another squirrel bury a nut. Then, when the coast is clear, they steal it. But food larceny didn’t explain the behavior of one little sneak I watched out my window.

I’ll start right off with my surveillance video.

Did you see any sign of a nut? Me either. That gray squirrel is empty-handed. It sits on a skinny tree with nowhere to stash a winter cache. So, what explains the black squirrel’s sneaky creeping?

You have probably seen two or more squirrels tearing through trees. The Live Science article, Why Do Squirrels Chase Each Other? gives several explanations: Very young squirrels chase each other just as kittens and puppies do, using play to develop strength and coordination. An older squirrel might chase another to claim territory or just to show who’s boss.

The article also says that males chase females before mating. They use a ‘slow-paced, following technique.’ It allows a male to use scent to judge a female’s reproductive status.

Hmmm… how slow is ‘slow-paced?’ And how close can that ‘following technique’ be? Was my sneaky squirrel vetting a potential mate? I shot the video last January. According to Michigan’s Department of Natural Resources, squirrels in our state mate from January to March and again from June to July. This squirrel wasn’t a very subtle stalker. But mating could well have been his motive.

If so, how do you interpret the second squirrel’s swat?

References and a Related Kids’ Book

Here’s a fun article by a naturalist who studied squirrel behavior. Called The Sociable Gray Squirrel, it’s a terrific short read that explains how squirrels interact. Even better, the author describes her research methods. It’s a great article to show inquisitive kids how science can answer questions about animals in our backyards.

The squirrels in the video are eastern gray squirrels, Sciurus carolinensis. If you’re wondering about the sneaky squirrel’s black fur, it’s the result of a genetic mutation. Black squirrels are quite common in my neck of the woods. The mutation’s origin is an interesting story you can read here—an article in Smithsonian Magazine.

For a related kids’ book, I recommend Common Critters: The Wildlife in Your Neighborhood.

This is a book of poems by Pat Brisson, illustrated by Dan Tavis. Its featured creatures include lots of insects, spiders, birds, and familiar animals like skunks and squirrels. The book’s backmatter tells more about each critter. It also explains the poems’ various verse forms. I enjoyed the poems, although some of the rhyme is a little contrived. The illustrations are silly, fun, and engaging. In my experience, little kids love books about critters, especially when the books are written in rhyme. They will enjoy this collection of poems, which is perfect for taking short reading breaks. The publisher recommends this book for kids aged 6 to 8.

Image Credits: Carol Doeringer.

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