You're driving down the road, minding your own business, when suddenly a squirrel, jaws clenched around something larger than its entire head, lunges out of the underbrush and launches itself suicidally in front of your car.
If reflexes and physics keep you from squashing that squirrel flat, you can rest assured that it will be only moments before the next romping Rocky ricochets out in front of you.
So what’s going on?
Well, it’s been a banner year for acorns and nuts, says Maggie Jones, executive director of the Denison-Pequotsepos Nature Center in Mystic. And it’s the second or third year of such abundance.
“Plenty of food means plenty of babies,” she says.
And plenty of baby squirrels (and chipmunks) early in the year means plenty of teenage squirrels (and chipmunks) in the fall.
Jones says the little buggers were feeling so flush early on that many went out and had entire second broods after the first ones left the nest.
And right now, those youngsters are just learning about things like roads.
The reactions that protect squirrels from predators, Jones says – stopping stock still, running in one direction and then turning tail and running in the exact opposite direction – don’t protect them from traffic.
In fact, she says, she has read that 70 percent of squirrels don’t make it past their first year on Earth. Not all of the deaths are vehicular – but some are, as anyone driving around here the past couple weeks can testify.
SCIENTISTS CALL SQUIRRELS “scatter-hoarders,” Jones says. They pick up this season's bounty of food – acorns, hickory nuts, beech nuts, walnuts – and while they feast on some of those nuts now, they bury some for later. When the squirrels race kamikaze-like across the road with the giant nuts in their mouths, they are probably heading for a good burial ground. (For the nuts, that is. Not for themselves).
Most squirrels will remember where they left most of their goodies, Jones says, but they’ll inevitably forget some – or, given their mortality rate, not survive to take advantage of their hoarding.
These forgotten nuts and acorns are vital to the continuation and health of the oak-hickory forest around the state, Jones says.
Squirrels aren’t the only ones taking advantage of the nut-wealth of the past few years. Chipmunks – “larder-hoarders,” who store their wealth in their dens – also are a part of it, as are blue jays, woodpeckers, mice and many other creatures.
And while squirrels also love mushrooms, and it’s a good year for mushrooms, “Right now, “ Jones says, “it’s all about nuts.”
IN TERMS OF AVOIDING MASS SQUIRREL MURDER, Sgt. Matthew Northrop of the Montville Police Department says that there’s no easy answer.
The only thing to do, he says, is to “continue on your path.”
“Your only options are to swerve off the road, which is not safe, or to brake heavy, causing your tires to lock up and your car to skid, which is also not safe.”
If you’re confident in your tires and your brakes, you can try the brakes, but not to the point at which your car will skid. And depending on the traffic around you, braking suddenly and hard could be very dangerous, he says.
He reminds drivers that if you leave the lane of travel and cause an accident, you will be the one at fault.
“Do not swerve, or you will lose control of your car,” Northrop says. “Trees, cars, buildings, rocks - they don’t move.”
The American Automobile Association agrees. Representative Jacklyn Tobin says that “If avoiding the squirrel is in any way going to cause a driver to lose control, it’s better to simply not try to avoid the squirrel.”
If you’re the only car on the road, you can slow down, she says. But otherwise, grit your teeth and maintain your line.
“Safety is the No. 1 concern,” she says, adding, “The poor squirrels!”