When you go for a walk at the local city park, you’re likely to see a high number of gray squirrels crawling in and out of trees. In some high-traffic parks, those very same squirrels will likely be courageous enough to walk right up to you with the hope that you might be carrying some sort of food for it to nibble on.
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In the unforgiving deep wilderness, however, squirrels tend to be much more cunning; many of them do whatever it takes to ensure their own survival, even if that means eavesdropping on the sounds that birds make as they peek down at potential threats from the highest tree branches.
Citing the results of a scientific study published just this past week in the journal PLOS ONE by researchers from Oberlin College, gray squirrels pay close attention to nearby bird chatter in an effort to ascertain whether they’re in any imminent danger.
The findings show that squirrels understand what sounds normal and what doesn’t, especially when it comes to birds chirping away in the background. As it would seem, a gray squirrel that determines that a group of nearby chirping birds sounds relaxed will, consequently, also feel relaxed. On the other hand, if that same gray squirrel determines that a group of nearby chirping birds sounds distressed, then it will likely err on the side of caution.
The researchers reached this conclusion after analyzing gray squirrel behavior in the presence of certain bird chatter sounds. They recorded various types of bird chatter and then played it with a hidden speaker to study the squirrels’ reactions. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the squirrels responded exactly how you’d expect.
In the presence of ‘normal’ bird chatter, the squirrels spent more time conducting ‘relaxed’ activities such as foraging, preening, and resting. On the other hand, when the squirrels were introduced to the sound of a squawking hawk without the normal bird chatter, they performed more vigilant activities, such as fleeing, freezing, or standing perfectly still.
Not only does the study confirm that squirrels are cunning and intelligent animals, but it also begs the question of whether human-made sound pollution impacts a squirrel’s natural ability to perceive potential threats. Perhaps future studies can shed some light on this newfangled question.