A new study reveals squirrels eavesdrop on other species

Published: September 10, 2019

squirrel-in-a-park Photo by Svetlana Turchenick/Shutterstock

My dad has, for many years, waged war at the cottage with, to hear him tell it, a diabolical mastermind of a gray squirrel. This squirrel is his nemesis, taunting and jeering from the deck railing. And then, when my dad’s back is turned, brazenly stealing the Saltines that my father hides in the garage, away from more health-conscious children and hungry grandchildren.

I haven’t the heart to tell my dad that this squirrel, according to a recent study, might well have been eavesdropping on him.

Researchers from Oberlin College in Ohio tell us that squirrels are adept eavesdroppers, using all available info to not only alert them to threats but also a lack of danger. Their favourite gossipers seem to be birds, which generally share their territory.

For instance, the call of a red-tailed hawk, known to dine on eastern gray squirrels, would generally trigger concern. But if that call is accompanied by or followed by the casual chatter of nearby birds, the squirrel deduces that a threat is not to be taken seriously and quickly goes back to foraging or resting.

It’s long been known that squirrels and other species communicate with each other, say the researchers. But this cross-species communication of non-danger — one researcher likened it to a sort of Facebook in which species share information — is a relatively new discovery.

It’s offers a new way of thinking about how animals can learn from other species, says Dan Blumstein, a behavioural ecologist from University of California, Los Angeles. “Most of us have been thinking about the risky side of things not the safety side of things,” he says. “But both sorts of information are out there for the taking.”

Interesting yes, but eavesdropping squirrels are unlikely to give my father much comfort as he continues to wage battle over the Saltines.

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