Squirrels: Counterphiles (lovers of fearful situations) or Just Plain Nuts?
It’s a common sight when driving. You’re puttering along, minding your own business when, suddenly, a squirrel decides that NOW is the best time to cross the road; right in front of you. Why do they do that? Are they out to get us? Is this a Blackadder-style “clever plan” to make a one-by-one attempt to rid the world of its surplus human population? Or maybe this is the squirrel equivalent of “Goodbye, cruel world!”
I was thinking about this question just this morning as one of those furry terrorists jumped out in front of my car. For one brief moment, I wondered if perhaps the little devil had a bet on as to how far I would fly beyond my windshield. It seems like odd behavior especially because they appear to sit on the side of the road waiting for a vehicle to come by. Are they thrill junkies and just like being able to flirt with on-coming death? That did not seem likely, but what benefit could a squirrel get by such behavior?
Then it occurred to me that the squirrel (and various other small woodland critters) are used to using their terrain to avoid detection by predators. That road they are crossing is a sudden break in the cover of the trees and while crossing they are exposed to foxes and hawks, to name just two. But guess where those predators are not going to be when a car comes whizzing down the road? Right in one! They are not going to be right in front of that car.
When the car comes down the road any self-respecting hawk, owl, fox and so forth is going to do their best not to be there. So, my hypothesis (Look! I know the difference between a theory – which has proof, and a hypothesis – just a nifty idea that might explain something but has not been proven) is that this is learned behavior. I’ve seen some writers try to argue it is a case of evolution in action and maybe it is that too since the squirrels who do not time their crossing correctly are obeying the “Great Lifeguard” when ordered out of the genepool, so they are naturally selecting for faster squirrels with better judgement and maybe some depth perception? But the whole point of crossing at that time is that the car is potentially giving them shelter as they tranverse what is otherwise an entirely open area.
Now some articles I have read point out that while squirrels have been around for a very long time, we have only had cars a bit over a century and not enough time for squirrels to evolve, but that argues that this behavior is hard-coded into their tiny brains. Yes, it is true that cars are relatively recent, but how did humans travel before they had cars? Well, we had horses and donkeys etc., both for riding and for pulling carriages and wagons. And you know what? Squirrels can dodge them a lot easier than they can an automobile and yet your average hawk is still going to stay out of the way then too, so this possibly learned behavior might well go back much, much further.
Did squirrels play “chicken” with horse or donkey-drawn carts back in Ancient Rome or Mesopotamia? I can’t say. Sadly, Tacitus did not write a chapter in his Annals about how Caligula complained about silly or arrogant squirrels who would run in front of his horse (or chariot?). I do not recall Herodotus’ description about the squirrels he saw in his travels. Gilgamesh did not fight a fierce and days-long battle with a wild squirrel!
Still. That’s my hypothesis: Squirrels run in front of on-coming cars for the temporary shelter from predators they afford. Of course I still do not have an excuse for why some deer seem to walk in front of cars, and don’t get me started on possums. But why did the squirrel cross the road? Well, obviously to get to the other side and he used a car to get him there.
So, what do you think?