OBERLIN, Ohio — Nature can be unforgiving, especially when it comes to predator and prey. As such, squirrels need every advantage they can get in order to protect themselves from a variety of predators that may want to make them their next meal. Squirrels pay incredibly close attention their surroundings, and it’s been established for quite some time that they pick up on distress or alarm calls from other nearby animals in reference to nearby predators. Now, a new study reveals that squirrels also listen to nearby birds’ conversations to make sure there is no threat close by.
Researchers from Oberlin University say that if the chatter from birds is relaxed and normal, the squirrel knows it is not in immediate danger.
The authors hypothesized that squirrels were listening to bird conversations and sounds to assess their safety, so in order to test their theory they observed the behavior of 54 wild Eastern gray squirrels scattered across various parks and areas in Ohio.
A threat was simulated for each squirrel by playing a recording of a red-tailed hawk, an animal known to hunt and eat both squirrels and other smaller birds. Then, researchers played one of two different recordings; one recording was of multiple songbirds chattering amongst one another happily, and the other was an ambient sound featuring no bird noises. After playing these recordings, each squirrel’s behavior was monitored for three minutes.
As expected, after hearing the initial recording the hawk all the squirrels displayed defensive tendencies, such as running away, looking around, or freezing their movements. Interestingly, the squirrels that were then played the sound of songbirds happily chirping returned back to a normal, relaxed state much faster than the other group that heard ambient sounds.
The study’s authors say that this indicates squirrels use the sounds of nearby animals to gauge their own safety. This incredibly intuitive behavior allows the squirrel to either get back to what they were doing in a faster manner, or pick up on potential threats more efficiently.
“We knew that squirrels eavesdropped on the alarm calls of some bird species, but we were excited to find that they also eavesdrop on non-alarm sounds that indicate the birds feel relatively safe. Perhaps in some circumstances, cues of safety could be as important as cues of danger,” the study reads.
The study is published in the scientific journal PLoS ONE.