If sex is such a natural phenomenon, how come there are so many books on how to?
February is the month for love and lovers. There are roses, chocolate, and lots of candy hearts. In a month where spring seems so far away, but cold, sleet and snow are still trying to dominate the landscape, love is in the air, especially on Valentine’s Day.
But there is often little love given between mating mammals. Reproduction is work, not warmth. It’s a job; it’s what they have been waiting to do all year. Mating is frequently a demanding and stressful time for wildlife, especially during the dead of winter.
Right now red foxes are busy calling at night with various sounds like yips, yelps, barks, and other high-pitched sounds. These are not calls of love, but important sounds that function to maintain contact between mates. Red foxes generally maintain lifelong breeding companions, but they don’t always stay together. In fact, male and female foxes tend to avoid each other throughout the year except during the breeding season.
Both males and females will call out to each other late at night during the winter to start to renew bonds. Some males might even be polygamous; mating with more than one female at the same time. Mating calls can be loud, depending on how many foxes reside in your neighborhood.
Red foxes breed around New York Harbor from December to April, with a peak between January and February, as daylight increases. Author Julie Feinstein writes in her wonderful book, Field Guide to Urban Wildlife, that scientists have measured how long foxes have sex. “They report an average copulation of twenty-six minutes, with a range of duration from one to sixty-seven minutes.” Reproduction often takes place in burrows.
Believe it or not, this copulation time is on average better than humans. In a 2015 article in the New Yorker magazine entitled, How Long Should Sex Actually Last? by Mureen O’Connor she writes:
“When Fox News health pundit Keith Ablow surveyed fans in 2007, 80
percent of both men and women wanted sex to last half an hour. And yet, the actual duration of heterosexual intercourse tends to be pretty short: Most researchers agree that the average is something like six minutes.”
After mating, both female and male foxes will remain together to raise their young. Females will work hard to build one or more dens, extra dens are used if the original is disturbed or destroyed. Males will spend their time providing food for their mates and young, and teaching offspring to hunt.
Foxes are not the only ones seeking procreation this time of year. Raccoons, striped skunks and gray squirrels are three common animals also getting frisky.
Their breeding season usually begins sometime in February around New York Harbor. All three male species are polygamous. They will also leave a female soon after mating. A female will raise her children alone, with no help from dad.
Authors Kit and George Harrison in the classic book, America’s Favorite Backyard Wildlife, tell us that when weather conditions are just right, a “male raccoon leaves his winter den to wander in search of a mate, checking out every spot that might harbor a receptive mate. When the polygamous male finds a female, she decides whether or not to accept him.” If a male is accepted by a female raccoon, he will then move into the female’s den for a week or two, strictly for courtship purposes. After which, she will kick him out and he will resume looking for another mate to reproduce.
This is a similar reproduction patter for striped skunks. The male skunk will come out of his cozy winter den looking for a receptive female. When one is found, he will typically move in with her for reasons of courtship. But unlike raccoons, a female striped skunk may or may not kick him out. In fact, the male skunk may settle in for the remainder of the winter season in a female’s den, but only if the female wishes. There is still more to learn about the mating habits of skunks.
There is nothing romantic, though, about the mating habits of Eastern gray squirrels. They do not mate for life and males love to chase females. Starting around February, the little furry critters get active. They will aggressively race, chat and chase each other to seek a mate and establish a breeding territory. Males will chase females in response to a scent given off by her that can attract males from as far away as over 1,500 feet.
Authors Kit and George Harrison explain that “the chase is a vital part of squirrel courtship, and that without it, the female will not ovulate.” Research shows that squirrels in captivity will usually not produce young, because there is “no opportunity in confinement for the chase.” Now you know why squirrels love to run around.
Usually the most dominant male squirrel will copulate with a single female first. Other males may get to mate with her after he is finished. Once the mating season is done sometime in March or April the males will have nothing more to do with a female, until they start another breeding season in the summer.
Females unquestionably have the short end of the stick in raising a family around here. Males are polygamous and females are monogamous, mating with only one male. This seems to be a common one-sided theme. It’s also not easy being a woman. It takes a lot more energy and resources to create egg cells, give birth, and raise children. Males are able to make sperm quickly and then go.
The only real advantage most females have is the power to choose a mate. This is almost certainly why females are choosy about finding Mr. Right. Once a single female has encountered a single male, the female must decide quickly whether to accept or reject him as a mate. A female is seeking a specific set of instinctive traits that are reliable indicators of fitness, such as courage, bright colors, or intelligence. She wants to make sure his genes will be healthy and worth her sacrifice and energy. There's no use in wasting time with a male who is small or unhealthy. Her offspring will be less likely to survive in the wild if she doesn’t find a healthy mate. Reproduction is work.
Certainly dating can be tricky in New York City, and not only for people, but for the wild animals that call New York Harbor home. The pressures of reproduction can be tough and stressful. Yet even during February there are wild animals getting down to work for the ultimate accomplishment – the celebration of new life.