How to Talk Squirrel & Other Squirrel Questions Answered


Robert Lishak, an expert on squirrel vocalization—yes, those exist apparently—and specifically with gray squirrel behavior and speech took a whole bunch of questions for the Washington Post yesterday, including an explanation of squirrel speech. What follows is a guide to speaking to squirrels, and other squirrel information, including the answers to such timeless (?) questions such as “Do Squirrels Swear?”, “How Can I Tell if My Pet Squirrel Loves Me?”, “How Do I Know if that Cute Squirrel in the Tree is Taken?”, and “Why Can’t Squirrels Cross the Street in a Straight Line?”

To begin his analysis, Lishak and his team of researchers analyzed squirrel speech in terms of duration and frequency, spending hours recording vocalizations and making observations—even training a cat to hunt squirrels (though they always kept the cat at bay).

Among their findings: Squirrels are observant. The way a cat moves through an area affects squirrel reaction. “If the cat is walking at an even pace, the squirrels ignore it,” Lishak said. “Stalking — starting, stopping — sets off alarm signals. If the cat makes eye contact, it sets them off in a New York minute.”

Kuk — The kuk is a sharp bark of alarm, usually issued in a series: kuk kuk kuk!

“We used to think they were intended only for the ears of other squirrels,” Lishak said. But now researchers know there are two audiences for the kuk. The first is for conspecifics — a word that means others of the same species, i.e., other squirrels. “Rapid kuks say, ‘Hey, there’s a predator close by. This is imminent danger,’ ” Lishak said. The second audience is the predator itself. Looked at on a spectrogram, kuks have a short duration and a broad frequency.

Quaa — The quaa is basically a long kuk issued after the threat level has dropped. It sounds a bit like a cat screeching. “A quaa says there is still danger — they can still see the predator — but it may be moving away,” Lishak said.

Quaa moan — This is lesser in intensity still. It sounds like a chirp followed by a meow. The narrow frequency range of the quaa moan — and the way it starts softly, builds, then tapers off — makes it hard to tell exactly where the noise is coming from. It is, in the words of scientists, “ventrilocal.” Said Lishak: A quaa moan “means ‘I don’t see the predator. I think we’ve driven it from the area, but I better be as ventrilocal as I can.’ ”

Muk-muk — The muk-muk resembles a stifled sneeze: phfft, phfft. It’s quiet, only about 20 decibels, and is sometimes called a buzz. Nesting squirrels use it when they’re hungry and are attempting to solicit a feeding from their mother. But the muk-muk does double duty. The next time you see a squirrel chasing another squirrel around a tree, listen for the muk-muk. The chase probably involves a male hoping to mate with a female. “To drive that home,” Lishak said, the male squirrel “produces the same solicitation call that babies give. It means: ‘Don’t fear me. I’m just looking to copulate.’ ”

And now to the series of questions posed by Washington Post readers.

On the Feelings of Pet Squirrels
Q: I have a rescue squirrel that lives with my family. She is very sweet. Sometimes she will make a noise that sounds like her teeth are chattering. It usually seems like it’s when she is searching for something, like a nut that she had hidden. Is this common?
A: Tooth chattering is an aggressive signal. Your squirrel is indicating that you need to keep your distance or you might get bitten

On Squirrel Body Language, or Tail Language
Q: I have never listened to squirrel vocalizations but I am certain they also communicate with tale signs. I have twice used my arm to mimic tale waves and have gotten a response from squirrels outside my window. What do scientists know about the tale signs?
A: Tail flashing is an important visual signal used by squirrels to indicate alarm. It is one of the first signals seen when squirrels discover the location of a disturbing stimulus. When the stimulus is more threatening, the tail flashing is accompanied by vocalizations. One of my graduate students, Robert Turnbull, completed a MS Degree study during which he used a model squirrel with a motorized tail.

On Squirrel Swearing
Q: I remember a time I threw an empty cup full of ice into a trash can when out popped a squirrel who was quite focal towards me over having been iced. Was the squirrel communicating anything to me?
A: I do not like to attach anthropomorphic descriptions to the behaviors of lower animals so I would suspect the squirrel was exhibiting alarm rather than anger.

On Squirrel Dating & Mating
Q: 1.) Do squirrels mate for life? 2.) I heard the meow & chirp sound one evening on a walk with my husband at dusk. We stopped to listen and we would have sworn there were two squirrels up in a tree going on and on together. They were pretty loud. What were they saying to each other to go on for so long? Was it only one squirrel throwing its voice? We do know there are cats that live in the vicinity.
A: Gray squirrels are mostly solitary animals and do not mate for life. Twice a year they participate in mating chasing which you have likely seen but didn’t recognize as such. A mating chase consists of several males following a female that is sexually reciptive. They indicate their interest in mating by producing mating calls which sound lik a rapid series of stiffled sneezes. When they corner the female there is usually a lot of squeeking, growling, and tooth chattering heard but at least one of the males will mate with her. Sometimes the chases go on for hours and if you can verbally mimic the stiffled sneeze sound you can actually lure males to your location.

On Feeding Squirrels
Q: Should I avoid giving squirrels anything in particular?
A: I don’t know what you shouldn’t give them but I know that many squirrel lovers think dried corn on the cob is especially enjoyed by them. Peanuts, too, though they can be expensive. I’ve seen several references to them liking avocadoes, though that seems especially indulgent to me. There is one thing you should not give baby squirrels and that’s cow milk. Wildlife rehabilitators I’ve spoken with say it’s a common misconception that baby squirrels respond to droppers of milk. It can actually harm them.

On a Variety of Topics, Including Squirrel Naming and Lifespans
Q: 1. I name our squirrels. When we pay attention we can see distinct facial diferences. I put out nuts and call them. Is it possible they can begin recognizing their names or certain hand signals?
2. How long do they live?
3. When do adolescent squirrels get the boot? Do they make dreys in the same tree as their parents?
4. Why are some squirrels aggressive while others are docile? All of our squirrels are nice, but I know someone who gets her screen door destroyed. Of course, she also greased the birdfeeder pole just so she could laugh at them during her morning coffee. Do squirrels sense people’s personalities?
A: If your squirrels are associating their names with a food reward, you are in fact training them via operant conditioning and yes, they will respond to the name or genture. In nature, the average life span is about 2-3 years. In captivity, I think the record is 17 years but on average about 10. Most animals show an aversion to staying in the home nest as they are beginning sexual maturity and as a result will leave on their own without needing to be shown the door. Whether a squirrel is aggressive or not depends on its sex (males more aggressive than females without young), its age, and the situation it finds itself in (fighting over limited resources like food). I am not sure if squirrels sense personalities but if the squirrel is routinely fed in the same location by the same person, it can learn something about your nature by simple association.

On Our Love of Squirrels & Hatred of Rats
A: I think one of the union locals has an inflatable rat you could use. They’d probably let you borrow it, the Post being the liberal media and all.
Q: I don’t think that sends the same message. The reason we like squirrels is because they don’t look like rats. Squirrels keep the same hours as us: up at dawn, busy during the day, then asleep at night. Rats skulk around in the dark. Squirrels have cute, bushy tails. Rats of skinny greasy tails.

On Warning a Squirrel of Imminent Danger
A: How can I say to a squirrel “Hurry and run away or my dogs will try to eat you?” Some squirrels around here don’t run away until the last second when my dogs are trying to grab them.
Q: Squirrels quickly learn which predators to stay away from because they are perceived as an immediate threat. I would guess that the squirrels view your dog as rather slow and that is why they allow him to approach so near before fleeing. Dogs are not much of a threat to adult squirrels but sometimes get lucky.

On That Frustrating, Zig-zagging Path Squirrels Take to Cross the Street
A: I realize squirrels are smart. However why do they have such a hard time crossing a street. Never totaling commented to a direction, which sometimes leads to death.
Q: I asked Richard Thorington, a squirrel expert at the Smithsonian, about this. He said a squirrel’s natural escape plan invovles trying to confuse the predator. It’s sort of like a running back zigging and zagging back and forth. This might work when a squirrel is being chased by a fox, say, but it doesn’t work with a Chevy Tahoe.


Attribution

Washington Post (twice)


  • Michael

    From my experience, I have never seen aggressive behavior from tooth chattering. It seems to happen most when they want food from us. We have one squirrel that has been visiting our balcony for close to two years now I think, and she does it often as well. She’s pretty comfortable around us and has never been aggressive. She will even let us pet her a little bit every once in a while. (Western Fox Squirrels) I’ve always wondered what the tooth chattering meant.

  • emilierv

    I’m rehabilitating two baby squirrels right now and I’ve heard the tooth chatter for the first time tonight from my baby male when I dragged a new cage in the room, making a lot of noise and changing the environment a lot. I tried to pet him because I wasn’t sure what was going on but he growled, didn’t look happy at all!

  • Belka

    for someone who claims to be an “expert” this is a rather shallow take on squirrels.
    First of, there are different teeth chatterings: one is chattering, the other one is bruxing, and bruxing is a sign of contentment. Among vocalizations is also “purring/grunting” type of sound, different from “muk-muk” and this “purring” is another sign of content.

    Second of, this whole thing with anthropomorphism and “lower” animals. How are they “lower”? Lower than what/who? Than humans? Primates? When humans’ access to animals’ emotional and psychological minds is so limited, how can you, as a scientists, assume with such finality that they are “lower”?
    By the same token, how can you as someone who seems to be studying animals can remain so anthropocentric, suggesting that only humans are capable of experiencing a wider ranger of emotions than a mere survival requires. FYI: squirrels do express anger and disapproval, quite vocally: try to pry a pencil out of a squirrel’s mouth and you will hear it; squirrels feel sad, too; they feel excited and happy just as humans do.
    To suggest that to think that a squirrel can get upset because iced water was poured over it accidentally is anthropomorphic is extremely anthropocentric. I may not be able to prove the squirrel’s upsetness scientifically, but neither you can disprove it scientifically either. But instead of leaving it open, you have to label it as “anthropomorphic.”

    You need to volunteer somewhere to help raise baby squirrels, or help with treating injured squirrels. Maybe, just maybe then you will begin to realize that there is so much more to them than just your alarm calls.

  • Squirrel

    ¯_(ツ)_/¯

  • Annette King

    i just laughed so hard my lungs hurt! Belka’s comment made me laugh even more!!!!

  • Jasmine Brewster Fletcher Glaz

    I’m raising a baby squirrel and this doesn’t come close to touching on the many intricate vocalizations for communicating.

    My baby chatters softly when content and relaxed, especially when in a blissful state of being ‘groomed’ by me followed by a purring sound. She grunts and growls when excited about her formula being prepared, cries not only when hungry but also for attention. She makes soft sneezing sounds when trying to get perfectly comfortable tucked into my neck, hand or chest. She clicks when trying to find me or when she’s wandered too far. She grunts while licking and grooming me. She also makes an exaggerated huffing noise when flipping around to find the perfect spot to curl up comfortably. And squeaks when nursing from excitement. She also makes smacking noises when being cleaned up after eating or when falling asleep after licking me

    So so many different sounds and a plethora of situations she uses each for

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