Squirrels eavesdrop on bird chatter to tell when a threat has passed
For years, researchers have known that squirrels can eavesdrop on other species’ alarm calls to cue into dangerous situations that they might not notice themselves. Now, a team of scientists has uncovered another facet of these rodents’ nosy nature: To figure out when a threat has passed, squirrels may also snoop on the casual conversation of birds—a clear sign that things are, once again, all good in the wooded neighborhood.
The study, published today in the journal PLOS ONE, hints that, even for wildlife, the language of safety operates on something of a sliding scale. Rather than relying on the mere absence of an alarm, squirrels will prick their ears for the presence of another signal to confirm the coast is clear—even if that means dissecting the dialect of another species.
This rudimentary multilingualism is a testament to squirrels’ cognition, which is “much more complex than people give them credit for,” says Suzanne MacDonald, who studies animal behavior at York University in Canada, but was not involved in the study. “Safety is sometimes seen as the default: When you don’t hear this sound, it’s safe. But this takes it a step further...and that makes it much more interesting.”