The white-tailed antelope squirrel is a common critter in Northern Nevada. He lives all over the place, especially in brushy desert ecosystems like those you see everywhere just east of the Sierra. Round-headed, about six inches long, with two white stripes running from shoulder to haunch and a twitchy little tail that doesn’t trail behind but is usually laid atop his lower back. He’s a cute little devil, and most people will see him and think he’s a chipmunk, since we tend to think of squirrels in terms of long, bushy tails. But squirrels they are, and as common as dirt here in our part of the world. And they’re not just common, but smart. I didn’t know how smart until an incident I witnessed recently.
I was driving on Highway 447, just outside of Nixon heading north to Gerlach. Prime antelope squirrel country. I was heading north, and off in the distance, coming my way, another car in the southbound lane. A squirrel ventured out on to the road. He came out of the desert on my right and was intent on crossing the road, from my right to left. He stopped on the edge of the asphalt for a second, then proceeded to skitter forward.
I saw him get across my lane, and could tell that he was going to enter the southbound lane just as the oncoming car was going to intersect with his little squishable body. “Uh-oh,” I said to myself, and braced to witness the violent death of one antelope squirrel.
His forward momentum, as fate would have it, put him exactly underneath the car as this intersection of car and mammal occurred. I could see this all very clearly, as I was still moving toward their encounter. I could see the squirrel under the car, squarely situated now in the car’s shadow. I figured as he kept moving forward, toward the desert, he was toast, as he was gonna get nailed by the car’s passenger side rear tire. I watched, transfixed with this life and death drama taking place in front of my eyes. And then, that little bugger blew my mind.
Once the squirrel entered the shadow of the car, he did something completely unexpected. And completely intelligent. He stopped in his tracks. He froze in a spot halfway between the driver’s side tires and passenger’s side tires. In other words, he stopped in the perfect spot to survive. The car, moving on, passed harmlessly over him. The crafty critter, untouched and apparently unruffled, then resumed his crossing, disappearing into the brush on the other side of the road.
And I carried on, rather impressed. I had to admit, that was one heckuva of an open field move.