By Charlotte Owen
The race is on. Only the quickest and nimblest will succeed, able to sprint across open ground, leap over obstacles, scramble up tree trunks and thread their way along the slenderest branches to keep up with the grey blur in the lead. Our parks, gardens and woodlands have become the ultimate squirrel assault course as females lead their suitors on a merry dance through the treetops.
It may be the middle of winter but grey squirrels are already looking for love. They’ve been courting since the autumn but their high-speed antics tend to peak in January, when their furry little bodies are pumped so full of hormones that all sensibilities are lost. Males are drawn in by the irresistible scent of a female in heat but she won’t simply make do with the first suitor to appear on the scene. She will skitter away from his amorous advances and he will pursue her with dogged determination. There will often be multiple males following the same female, forming a grey squirrel conga-line hurtling through the garden as they jostle for prime position. Each competitor is entirely focused on the chase, taking risks and pushing his limits to impress the girl and out-do his rivals. It’s in the female’s best interest to put the males through their paces so that she can select the best potential father for her offspring. Only the strongest squirrel athlete will win the chance to mate with her, having first demonstrated his superior speed, stamina and agility, and he will pass on the genes responsible for these valuable traits to his children.
In between all the racing, there is also plenty of shouting. Grey squirrels make some unusual vocalisations including an unmistakable alarm call: chuck…chuck…chuck…aahhh! It’s loud and repetitive and sounds like three wheezy barks followed by an extended squawking sigh. Males will also ‘chuck’ loudly at each other, flicking their tails furiously to signal their annoyance, but they address females with a much gentler bark that mimics the quiet contact calls of baby squirrels in the nest – and if all goes well, it won’t be long until the treetop nests are full of new arrivals.