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.


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.

    • AmanadaHessling

      So glad to hear that someone shares my feelings regarding the classification of species. We are all One – to suggest otherwise is a great misunderstanding that has dire consequences.

    • tbone Bengi

      He is wrong in a few things so called expert. I have 2 yr old male raised as baby bottle fed cows milk boiled to change the enzyme is perfect he never got sick it’s a myth a women told me it’s a high fat content and just boil it I did and he never had diarrhea or was sick not once again u boil it first. Second my male plays with me and chatters teeth to play he loves me and he’s 2 never was aggressive and never bit me. Always wants to be on me and I keep him out he’s litter box trained. Best and easiest pet I ever had

      • tbone Bengi

        Also he lives hugging a twisted shirt and grabs my arm turns upside down nibbles gently and kicks lightly just like a cat playing. When scared of something he jumps on shoulder. He lives it when he sleeps and I join him with my hand or if I pretend with my hand to clean him he closes his eyes he lives to have ears rubbed. What this cook says us wrong. If u raise a baby with boiled cows milk and spend time with him everyday they become best friend. When I come home he meets me at door and jumps in on me and lives laying on top of my head and spins around lives to feel my hair on his belly ur wrong. Mine is social and learned from a woman who raised a thousand squirrels. They are social at least mine is with me maybe mine isn’t the norm. The only instinct I see is burring nuts in my apt. Again 2 year old male never aggressive always wants to be near me is trainable thrived on boiled cows milk will post video

    • Karishma Katherine Naqvi I agree completely with you.. i was reading this article to understand my own babies better but unfortunately it left me feeling disappointed.. I stay with them the whole day.. there is so much more to them then what the author hear perceives them to be, I have raised them from when they were not more than 2 to 3 days old. Sharing a pic of my squirrel babies- Chip & Pip (the five striped Indian Palm Squirrel)

  • Squirrel


  • 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

  • Amanda

    This is a great article – I am glad to know more about the communication of such a common and crucial conspecific.

    However, we must be careful to not regard them as less-than humans. I do not agree with the use of the term “lower animals” if it is suggesting that squirrels are lower in hierarchy. This is the folly of our race and is leading to the destruction of species that are not only highly intelligent but more than integral in the survival of our own supposed “higher” species, the human.

  • anna shane

    I am new to the care of squirrels. My home was the protected territory for one squirrel for years, he would wake up my dogs each morning, and hang out on the tree outside my kitchen window. And then just as I was realizing he was part of the family, I’d caught him playing the the dogs stuffed toys, and then knew he knew he knew us too, he disappeared.

    He’d been around 7 or 8 years so I guessed that he’d died. I kept watching to see if he’d come back, and he didn’t, and I felt such a loss. It was only then that I looked up information about squirrels and then I felt bad that I hadn’t been feeding him.

    But after a few weeks some younger squirrels, two sets, started checking out the territory and because there is competition for food for critters, I started leaving out critter food for them, and watermelon. I think it’s down to three, but it’s hard to tell them apart so it may still be all four, their tails are getting bushier. Seems they may make their home with me and my dogs, who bark at them but have no hope of catching one.

    There is also an owl, but the cats around here are kept indoors. There are also possums, and raccoons, and a deer family lives across the street, and there are wild turkeys, so I may be feeding more than just my new squirrels. I believe the owl will get the rats.

    I used to have crows, but one of them came to my home to die, hung around for a few weeks, looking frail. He was old and I guess he just liked being close to the watermelon I’d put out for my new squirrels, and I was glad that my crow liked it, they are so beautiful. But it was clear he was not long for the world, the night before he died he slept on the ground, (near the watermelon).

    Since he died, the others are staying away. I think it’s probably unusual for a crow on his last legs to leave the family and hang out on the ground, near the watermelon, but he really liked the watermelon, and he also liked the cracked corn. But they saw his body and that is probably took it as a sign of danger.

    I hope the crows come back.

  • Chris ✓ᴺᵃᵗᶦᵒᶰᵃˡᶦˢᵗ

    The red squirrels in my yard do a motion with their arm while standing up on hind legs that we would do “come here” when they want peanuts from me.

  • Carole Bouchard

    found a squirrel last night on ice and snow he seemed half frozen to me,he had fallen out of a tree where his nest was. He seemed to have difficulty with one of his hind legs or was it because he was frozen. I put him in a box rather than let him die in the cold and brought him home.I put him securely in a box and he was bouncing up and down all night,then this morning I went to check up on him and he looked like he was sleeping or dead. He’s been sleeping since ,I occasionally check but still sleeping.The internet says that squirrels sleep like the dead. If he was dead im sure rigor mortis would have set in by now. JUST DON’T KNOW ???? Any ideas

  • Sarah

    I have a squirrel and all of a sudden today he has been acting weird. We raised him from a baby and he’s growing up. But anyway today he started making mean sounding noises almost like a grunt towards me and my boyfriend. He bit my boyfriend and tried to bite me when I held him. What does this mean? He eventually let me hold him and didn’t bite me but I’m nervous he might try to bite me again.

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