How Squirrels Identify Themselves

how squirrels introduce themselves 3 14
 Squirrel rattle calls may be a form of announcing their presence. (Shutterstock)

As a scientist who studies squirrel behaviour, one of the most common questions I am asked is: “How do I get them out of my yard?”

It’s not as easy being a squirrel as you might think. They live a relatively solitary life guarding hard-won food stores to survive the tough winters here in Canada. The behaviour that my students and I are most interested in is how these squirrels use sounds, or what we refer to as vocal communication, to help them make it through this tough life.

Solitary creatures

The North American red squirrel lives a somewhat solitary life. They spend most of their days in a 50-100 metre territory foraging for pine cones and other food sources like berries and mushrooms.

Individuals spend time gathering cones throughout the summer and fall months, storing them in a central location called a midden. They can be rather protective of these middens, as squirrels are known to steal a great deal from each other. In fact, a squirrel can steal up to 90 per cent of its stores from neighbouring squirrels.

These little thieves run back and forth moving and stealing cones to survive the tough Canadian winters. While they are stealing and storing, squirrels often produce a loud call, termed a rattle. I am keenly interested in this call — my students and I watch and record squirrels to understand what these rattles might be communicating.

Historically it was assumed that this rattle call was produced to make sure that squirrels knew to stay out of each other’s territories — in a sense, a warning that if you enter you may encounter some aggression from the squirrel that lives there. My research has been exploring a slightly different view of this call.

Recordings of various red squirrel vocal communications.

Neighbours and strangers

It is possible that the call still warns other squirrels to stay out, but its primary function is to identify the caller to all those who are listening. As a squirrel moves through its own territory, and the territories of its neighbours, they produce intermittent rattle calls. These calls are an announcement of who and where that squirrel is. Listeners then know where their various neighbours are throughout the day. This knowledge can help mitigate costly aggressive interactions, chases and fights.

In addition, by communicating who is calling, the rattle can signal to listeners who is more likely to steal from you and thus a more threatening neighbour. Some neighbours may be more likely to steal from you than others.

In behavioural ecology, this is referred to as the “dear enemy” effect, and supposes that in maintaining a territory it is useful to know the relative threat posed by your neighbours versus the threat posed by strangers. In most cases, a known neighbour is far less of a threat than a stranger.

 Get The Latest By Email

Weekly Magazine Daily Inspiration

With red squirrels, it has been shown that different neighbours do have different levels of threat. As a result, knowing who your neighbour is by their rattle call reveals the relative threat they represent and therefore the necessary response.

Social calls

Self-announcement or self-identification is a common vocal behaviour across many different species. Several marine mammal species, such as dolphins and seals, also produce calls that contain information about who is calling. They are used to identify social companions and offspring.

Several species of primates also have calls that contain information about who is calling. Again, these are often used in social interactions to help mitigate aggression during foraging — baboons and capuchin monkeys, for example. So it’s not unusual that a species like the red squirrel would also have information about who is calling to help them with difficult territory interactions.

My students and I have found that squirrels produce these calls throughout their territory as well as in the territory of close neighbours. By conducting experiments on when and where the squirrels produce the rattle call, we hope to show that the occurrence of this call is about announcing who and where you are, and not strictly about getting others out of your territory.The Conversation

About The Author

Shannon M. Digweed, Associate professor, Psychology and Biological Sciences, MacEwan University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


follow InnerSelf on

facebook icontwitter iconyoutube iconinstagram iconpintrest iconrss icon

 Get The Latest By Email

Weekly Magazine Daily Inspiration




spreading disease at home 11 26
Why Our Homes Became COVID Hotspots
by Becky Tunstall
While staying home protected many of us from catching COVID at work, at school, at the shops or…
christmas traditions explained 11 30
How Christmas Became an American Holiday Tradition
by Thomas Adam
Each season, the celebration of Christmas has religious leaders and conservatives publicly…
grieving for pet 11 26
How to Help Grieve the Loss of a Beloved Family Pet
by Melissa Starling
It’s been three weeks since my partner and I lost our beloved 14.5-year-old dog, Kivi Tarro. It’s…
grey-haired woman wearing funky pink sunglasses singing holding a microphone
Putting on the Ritz and Improving Well-Being
by Julia Brook and Colleen Renihan
Digital programming and virtual interactions, initially considered to be stop-gap measures during…
a man and woman in a kayak
Being in the Flow of Your Soul Mission and Life Purpose
by Kathryn Hudson
When our choices distance us from our soul mission, something inside us suffers. There is no logic…
how to kow if something true 11 30
3 Questions to Ask Whether Something Is True
by Bob Britten
Truth can be tricky to determine. Every message you read, see or hear comes from somewhere and was…
essential oil and flowers
Using Essential Oils and Optimizing Our Body-Mind-Spirit
by Heather Dawn Godfrey, PGCE, BSc
Essential oils have a multitude of uses, from ethereal and cosmetic to psycho-emotional and…
How Culture Informs The Emotions You Feel To Music
How Culture Informs The Emotions You Feel To Music
by George Athanasopoulos and Imre Lahdelma
I have conducted research in locations like Papua New Guinea, Japan and Greece. The truth is…

New Attitudes - New Possibilities | | | InnerSelf Market
Copyright ©1985 - 2021 InnerSelf Publications. All Rights Reserved.