One by one they fell. Neighborhood pumpkins gnawed beyond recognition. We'd had occasional squirrel trouble before, but never like this. Nothing could have prepared me for the scene I would discover when I set out for an early-morning jog.

As I walked down my front steps past the pumpkin arrangement I'd left as part of our family's fall ritual, I was shocked to find that the smallest one had been burrowed into; its insides had been sucked out, seeds and all, leaving the kind of shell that a deranged Peter, Peter Pumpkin Eater would have been proud to call home.

"Darn it," I thought. "That's never happened before."

My jogging partner, who noticed the pumpkin, said: "My neighbors had the same thing happen. They said it never happened to them before, either."

As we jogged our 31/2-mile route, every few blocks we noticed the same fate had befallen other pumpkins, regardless of size.

I put it behind me as I went through the rest of my weekly routine, until it brought me to my friend Nancy's home a few blocks away. What had to be a 25-pound pumpkin sitting on her porch had suffered the same fate as the others in our suburban enclave. But Nancy had witnessed the massacre.

Reee! Reee! Reee! Reee! The horror film sound effect echoed in my head as I imagined a theater full of jack-o'-lanterns watching with mouths agape the latest hit movie: "Who Is Killing the Pumpkins of North Bethesda?"

"I couldn't believe it," said Nancy. "I came out here and saw this big fat squirrel feasting on my pumpkin, and there were two others behind him waiting their turn. This has never happened to us before."

"That's pecking order behavior," noted Sandy Staples, a naturalist at the Meadowside Conservation Center in Rockville, which I had called for some answers.

"My husband, Jon, thinks this may be happening because there aren't a lot of acorns this year," I ventured.

"Well," she reasoned patiently. "Though white oaks -- the trees with the rounded leaves -- bear acorns every year, black oaks -- the trees with the pointy leaves -- bear acorns every two years. So, every couple of years if there are a lot of black oaks in a location, there could be fewer acorns. "

However, we agreed, this had not happened in this neighborhood for at least the last 13 years that our family has lived here.

Then, just when you thought it was safe to stop thinking about cicadas . . . Staples suggested it was likely that their emergence earlier this summer helped set this tale of "wildlife gone wild" in motion. It seems many of these hapless insects emerged from the ground to mate but found themselves the main course for a squirrel, fox, deer, rat or other animal.

"When there's an abundance of food, many animals multiply more than they would otherwise," Staples explained. That makes for some fierce competition before a cold winter weeds out the weak.

It all makes sense now, the squirrels I noticed mating in my back yard. In retrospect, was that the faint sound of Marvin Gaye crooning "Let's Get It On" in the nearby threatened wetlands?

"Under these competitive conditions," Staples concluded, "finding that someone has just set out pumpkins on a porch is seen by hungry animals as a treat." In this case, it was a great feast. An early Thanksgiving.