Whether you love them or hate them, we’ve probably all had experiences with squirrels. They dig holes in your garden, taunt your pets, and of course eat the bird seed that you definitely did not put out for them. When YouTuber Mark Rober decided that he wanted to take up bird watching during quarantine, he ran into just that: squirrels stealing from the birds. If you aren’t familiar with Mark, he’s currently a YouTuber, but he previously worked as an engineer for NASA and Apple. After trying out a few different “squirrel-proof” bird feeders, that did not live up to their name, he decided to put squirrel determination and skill to the test by making an obstacle course for them. And it paid off—Mark’s video is the most watched YouTube video in Canada in 2020, and the video currently has over 52 million views.
This obstacle course is quite elaborate, think a ninja warrior course. It’s made mostly from balance and moving obstacles, but also includes food distractions, a maze, and launch pads (don’t worry it’s safe, remember he’s an engineer). But the prize at the end is worth the struggle, lots of bird seed and a jackpot of walnuts.
Through building the course and observing the squirrels, Mark ended up developing a relationship with some of them, specifically four squirrels who become the stars of his video. He picked up on little bits of their personalities and even gave them names: Rick, Marty, Frank, and Phat Gus (who we later find out is actually a female). They each had different strategies for completing the obstacle course and even learned from watching what each other did.
Although Mark’s original intention was to challenge the squirrels, he actually gained a new respect for them through this process. After weeks of watching them, he discovered some really interesting things about how squirrels operate. He learned about the way they jump, land, use physics to control their bodies, and how they lock their heads to the landing target. He also learned that they do very quick calculations in their head to figure all this out—it takes about 300 milliseconds for a squirrel to pick their landing point when they are in the air.
Mark did a lot of the filming from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. everyday, since that’s when he found the squirrels were most active. But he also set up streaming cameras that ran 24/7, meaning he caught a lot more on film than just the squirrels and the obstacle course. One of his unrelated, but interesting discoveries was the “wide variety of animals that use fences as inner yard highways to get around as a substitute for all the trees that existed before we got here.” With travel restrictions still in place, we may not have been able to connect with nature in the ways we normally do, so Mark’s discovery is a good reminder that nature is still around us, we might just have to change our perspective and learn to connect in different ways.
For anyone who is worried about the squirrels becoming dependent on Mark and the obstacle course as a food source, he thought about that too. After leaving the course up for a week the squirrels had pretty much mastered it, so he disassembled it forcing them back into their natural ways of getting food.
So next time you are at the cottage or home and want to curse your local squirrels out for whatever trouble they are causing, try befriending them instead. They are smart, curious, athletic, funny little creatures and this is a humble reminder that they are probably better at math than you are.