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Why Do Squirrels Listen to Bird Chatter?

There is perhaps nothing as pleasant as the morning sounds of birds singing, and for squirrels, those trills might be doubly delightful. According to research, our acorn-loving yard guests have a pattern of listening to birds to determine whether the area is free from predators such as red-tailed hawks. If the birds are tweeting contentedly, this signals that it's safe enough to roam about, gather food, play, or do whatever else squirrels enjoy when all is well. Keith Tarvin, a a behavioral ecologist at Ohio's Oberlin College, said squirrels aren't the first creatures to develop an animal alarm system. "Lots of animals listen in on the alarm calls of other species," Tarvin told NPR. "This has been found in a variety of squirrels — ground squirrels, tree squirrels. It's been found in monkeys. It's been found even in lizards." The latest research, however, is the first to focus on safety, rather than threat. The results showed conclusively that squirrels feel safer when they believe the birds around them feel that way.

Some nutty squirrel facts:

  • Some squirrels have been seen sniffing out food buried beneath a foot (.3 m) of snow, then digging a tunnel to reach it.
  • Squirrels need that strong searching ability, since they typically end up losing a quarter of their stored goodies to other squirrels.
  • Squirrels can jump distances equal to 10 times their body length; they can also twist their ankles 180 degrees to see in any direction.
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