Monday, July 7, 2008

Life In The Urbs

Natural selection has not been kind to the city squirrel. Or perhaps mom nature decided to have a bit of fun at the little rodent’s expense. There are 250 world-wide squirrel species, from a 4" African pygmy to a 35" Asian whopper, and I suspect they all share the same odd characteristics as the Eastern Grays that scamper about my neighborhood.

The inherited traits which could be said to have a most profound effect on urban squirrels are their curiosity, short attention spans, and hesitation. I’ve observed these same traits in the two that noisily stake out my yard. They race from tree to tree with carefree abandon, only to stop dead on a branch, and stare off into space for several minutes. One of them finally descends to the ground to dig for buried treasures, but just as quickly becomes bored with that task.

Eventually something across the street catches its eye, and the ever curious animal dashes onto the asphalt. And it is here where internal combustion trouble lurks. Halfway across, the squirrel comes to a halt, sits back on its haunches and looks all around. What was that strange noise from far off? What is that ominous vibration coming from below?

The squirrel sits perplexed, not knowing what it’s supposed to do. Should it continue across the street or beat a hasty retreat back to its leafy home? The sound gets louder and the asphalt moves under its feet, but the squirrel doesn’t budge. Suddenly it sees the approaching predator, a metallic beast bearing down on it.

Strangely, the squirrel remains in the middle of the street, hesitating, still weighing its choices. Then, as if a dim bulb goes on over its head, the squirrel turns and races for home. Too late, a shiny SUV flattens the hapless creature before it reaches the curb.

I’ve seen it happen too many times to be considered an isolated incident. There seems to be a common pattern in the various squirrel squashings, and I believe the answer lies in a squirrel's native instincts.

Nature, boiled down to its rude essentials, can be stated simply, “Eat and don’t get eaten.” For little critters way down on the food chain, that means don’t be seen, smelled or heard. And if a pine marten should get a whiff and come calling, squirrels know their best bet is to hide and freeze. This hard-wired reaction served the animal well for millions of years in primeval forests, but comes up short on America’s city streets.

You cannot hide from a soulless half-ton pickup barreling down the road at 50 mph. Play invisible and some unlucky city worker gets to scrape you off the black-top. But the squirrel’s real undoing may be that it just wants to get one more look at that fast approaching contraption. In the end, curiosity killed the squirrel.

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