This is the time of year when squirrels are supposed to be tucked away in their lairs, munching on the acorns and hickories they stashed last fall.

But the squirrels still are out running around. They are out on windy mornings when the temperature plummets; they are out in the middle of the afternoon when snow swirls in the forest. They are out all the wrong times.

Hunters follow the bushtails' habits. They know squirrels are hunted best on warm, still winter ddays, for an hour or so in the morning and an hour in the afternoon. In the winter, that's all the chance you normally get. And if the weather is bad, stay home.

Not this year. Any day is a squirrel-hunting day.

According to Josh Sandt, upland program manager for the Maryland Wildlife Administration, squirrels are acting the way they are because they're hungry.

This fall produced one of the worst mast crops in recent memories in Maryland, Sandt said. Slightly south, in Virginia, the mast production was spotty, too.

Mast is nuts -- principally acorns, but hickories, walnuts and beech nuts too. For the last several years mast production hereabouts has been good, but last year a late frost in the spring killed off the nut trees flowers, and that meant in the fall the mast was meager.

Nuts are the squirrels' survival food in fall and winter. When they don't have enough they have to go scrounging. That's what they are doing these days when they should be home in bed.

It means good hunting. Seasons don't close in either state until Jan. 31, and both Sandt and Dick Cross of the Virginia Game Commission said game managers are hoping hunters take a good supply of squirrels. Otherwise, they said, the animals may starve.

"Two things happen when squirrels don't have enough food," Sandt said. "They may make mass migrations of up to 20 or 30 miles, when literally thousands of squirrels follow." Usually those trips end in exhaustion and the animals, a ridge or valley in search of food are snatched up by predators, he said. If the squirrels don't migrate, they grow weak and fall victim to parasites, Sandt said.

In either case, the remaining polulation should be enough to repopulate the species, though there will be fewer squirrels next fall than there were this year.

The food shortage affects repopulate the species, though there will be fewer squirrels next fall than there were this year.

The food shortage affects reproduction, Sandt said. "An animalhs first priority is always self-preservation, and sometimes they'll just skip the mating. If they do mate and they haven't got the strength to bear a littler, they'll oftern adsorb the fetuses before birth."

The squirrels most likely to die from starvation are the males, Sandt said. The females are hardier.

Female squirrels usually bear two litters a year, one in the spring and one in the summer. They prepare for mating sometime in early February.

The first sign of squirrel mating that man sees are mad chases about the treetops, usually involving a male chasing a female or a male chasing off another male. It can get acrobatic.

After mating there is a six-week gestation period before litters of two to four young are born. The young can fend for themselves after about 45 days.

Sandt said squirrels generally aren't expected to live more than a year. There is an annual loss of 70 to 80 percent of the population to predators and hunters. Hunters take about a quarter of that, he said

The hardest times for squirrels will come later in the winter, when what little mast there is runs out, and then again late in the spring, when tree buds the animals feed on leaf out. Then they must wait for nuts, berries and insects to appear.

Feeling forrfor them? Sandt says it's not a good idea to get carried away "Feeding them won't do enough good to make a difference, and it can create a nuisance by drawing squirrels into your house."