You’re on your way home from work when suddenly, you see it—an Eastern Gray squirrel poised in the middle of the road, still as a dog in its pointing pose. It runs forward—then runs back—then runs forward again, like a football player heading for the endzone. Your autumnal daydreaming is interrupted, snapping to and braking suddenly to avoid certain rodent homicide.
Many biologists assert that the tendency for squirrels to jump in front of cars and stop in the road is a deeply ingrained survival instinct, as their zig-zagging scamper provides a biological advantage in the wild; it could also be due to relative obliviousness or their limited depth perception.
In this article, we’ll discuss a few details about the lifespan and lifestyle of squirrels, what causes them to run out into the middle of the road, and precautions to be taken in order to spare both their lives and your own.
A Few General Facts About Squirrels
Squirrels are actually quite hearty little mammals, capable of living up to 24 years in captivity. With the nature of their active and unpredictable lifestyle, this estimate is usually cut to a third when living in the wild, with most squirrels living an average of 6-10 years. Sadly the majority of squirrels born each year don’t even live to see their first birthday. The squirrels that do survive, however, should live to at least five or six years old.
They have a diverse and healthy diet consisting of mostly fungi, fruit, nuts, and seeds. Interestingly enough, a squirrel is more likely to die from being run over than from heart disease.
Before the invention of the car, roadkill wasn’t a common occurrence. It’s estimated that a million animals die per day from vehicular-related incidents in the United States, with squirrels beating out cats, rats, opossums, and deer for the highest number of roadside fatalities at 41 million deaths per annum. Their Jerky movements have enabled them to survive in the wild.
Why Do Squirrels Run Out and Stop in the Middle of the Road?
An Evolutionary Instinct
It’s generally held that this behavior is ingrained in squirrels as a survival instinct. And while the ‘stop, dodge, and dart’ tactics of squirrels work very well with their traditional predators, they’re not nearly as effective on man made roads.
Illinois State University Assistant Biology professor Rebekka Gougis explains: “An effective predator avoidance behavior is to freeze as a predator is approaching and then dart out of the way at the last moment. The predator is unable to change directions as quickly and thus often misses its squirrely prey.” This behavior works great in avoiding natural foes like hawks, owls, and foxes but doesn’t prove to be the most effective strategy in avoiding cars when crossing the street.
With the first mass-produced automobile having hit the road only a little over a hundred years ago, squirrels haven’t had much time to adapt to the relatively recent threat of modern cars. Unfortunately, the instinctual behaviors that have allowed their species to progress in terms of natural selection prove to be counterproductive and potentially fatal in the context of oncoming traffic.
It is such a common phenomenon that some assume it’s intentional on the squirrels part, but it seems this behavior has little to do with humans and more to do with habit.
Squirrels’ eyes are positioned on the side of their head, which gives them a well-developed sense of peripheral vision. They also have a well-developed posterior vision, which aids them in fending off potential advances from behind. Unlike humans, their visual field of view from both eyes does not intersect; this hinders their depth perception, making it difficult for squirrels to tell how rapidly a speeding object moves towards them.
Synurbanization, defined as “the adaptation of wild animals to urban environments,” could also play a part in the borderline death wish behavior of squirrels. As a result of continuous exposure—and human behaviors like feeding and general acknowledgment—many animals, are gradually becoming desensitized to humans and their urban surroundings.
Squirrels were almost completely extinct from urban areas by the 18th century until being gradually reintroduced for citizens’ pleasure, a grounding reminder of the natural world amidst the rapid urban expansion that defined the Industrial Revolution.
Eastern grey squirrels have become a fixture in New York City and are so used to co-living in the concrete jungle that they have developed a codependent relationship with humans and can become hostile when synanthropic behavior stops.
Squirrels may be entirely unaware of the threats posed by these looming man made metal giants. It’s possible that squirrels are now less sensitive to cars and their potential danger due to overexposure.
Efforts to Mitigate: Attempting to Avoid a Collision
Times to Be on the Lookout
Fall is the peak time for squirrel roadside fatalities. Fall is the time of year when most squirrel-related accidents seem to occur. The squirrel community is very active at this time, with many squirrels staying busy aggregating food for the winter and searching for discreet places to store it—tasks that may at times necessitate crossing a street.
Most squirrel litters are born in the spring, with autumn being the time when adolescent squirrels begin to venture out of the nest for the first time. Their naivete of the world at large makes them more accident-prone and unconscious of all the dangers that surround them, and is what account for many car accidents. As can also be the case with humans, sometimes teenagers and cars don’t mix.
It’s important to stay alert when driving at dawn and dusk, as these are the times when squirrels are most active. Squirrels are diurnal, keeping much the same daily schedule as humans, so you needn’t worry much about a bushy-tailed collision after nightfall. Keep your eyes peeled for these furry sprinters while driving during after sunrise and before sunset.
Practice Defensive Driving
The best way to mitigate potential squirrel collisions to practice defensive driving: driving steadily and safely while remaining alert and prepared for any potential surprises.
Unfortunately, we only have control over our behavior and not the actions of our tiny rodent friends—so at the end of the day, there’s not much that can be done other than staying aware while behind the wheel. When it comes down to it, the safety of yourself and others must be prioritized over that of the squirrel’s.
The town of Montville, Connecticut, is riddled with these furry daredevils, and police sergeant Matthew Northrup recommends that you continue on your natural path when you see a squirrel in the road. It’s far more dangerous to try to accommodate these unpredictable creatures—if you swerve off the road or break heavily to avoid them, you’re putting the safety of yourself and others at risk.
It’s also worth remembering that if you cause an accident in trying to avoid hitting a squirrel, you’re the one who will be held accountable. “Do not swerve, or you will lose control of your car,” the sergeant warns in an interview with Patch. “Trees, cars, buildings, rocks—they don’t move.”
It’s important to remember that squirrels’ survival instincts have been established for far longer than any of the roads in our country. Squirrels make up the majority of animal roadside casualties, which sadly is why many young squirrels don’t make it through their first year. The best we can do to limit our part in these unfortunate accidents is to stay alert and practice defensive driving.
- Illinois State University: Ask a Redbird Scholar: What’s up with squirrels and cars?
- Pest Strategies: How Long Do Squirrels Live? (It surprisingly varies…)
- How Stuff Works: Squirrels Are Hardwired to ‘Dance’ When a Car’s Coming
- Patch: Suicidal Squirrels? Or Are They Just Nuts?
- Reddit: ELI5: Why do squirrels sometimes stop in the middle of the road and wait for the car to come close to start running across or back to where it started?
- Wikipedia: Squirrel
- Wikipedia: Tree Squirrel,
- Relationship With Humans
- Wildlife NYC: Eastern Gray Squirrel
- Research Gate: Sublethal consequences of urban life for wild vertebrates
- Wikipedia: Roadkill