Squirrels are generally thought of as cute yet devious creatures that will eat the contents of your bird feeder and annoy your pets. But new studies have found out that squirrels are smarter than we thought they were: squirrels listen to bird chatter to know if they are safe. Although this doesn't sound like much, it's actually a huge deal.
Whenever squirrels hear the shriek of a red-tailed hawk (or other predatory animals above them on the food chain), they go into danger mode: freezing, looking around alertly, and fleeing to a safe place. Up until now, scientists believed that squirrels relied solely on the call of a hawk to determine their danger or safety. But scientists at Ohio's Oberlin College have just discovered that this isn't the case.
According to their research paper, squirrels eavesdrop on the bird chatter around them to determine whether danger has passed or predators are still lurking. The study found that squirrels resumed their normal behavior more quickly when birds resume their normal, conversational chatter.
The scientists tested this hypothesis by playing recorded sounds of songbird calls and hawk cries intermittently, and found "When squirrels are hearing chatter coming from other birds, that chatter conveys a message or a cue that apparently these birds feel pretty safe. And the squirrels apparently interpret that to mean that the environment is relatively safe."
Although it seems pretty natural to understand your safety based on your surroundings, experts say that this is not common among the animal kingdom - animals usually focus on alarm calls, rather than the ordinary undisturbed noises of animals, to gather information about their safety.
Experts say that this is another manifestation of the interconnectedness and interdependence of ecosystems. So next time you hear the birds singing, you can be sure that there are some happy little squirrels out there enjoying the music too.