New Study Finds Squirrels Eavesdrop On Birds

Researchers at Oberlin College in Ohio have discovered that squirrels will literally eavesdrop on birds to know when the coast is clear!

According to the findings posted in journalPLOS One: "We tested the hypothesis that eavesdropping gray squirrels respond to “bird chatter” (contact calls emitted by multiple individuals when not under threat of predation) as a measure of safety."

"Lots of animals listen in on the alarm calls of other species," says Keith Tarvin, a behavioral ecologist at Oberlin College in Ohio. "This has been found in a variety of squirrels — ground squirrels, tree squirrels. It's been found in monkeys. It's been found even in lizards."

But a student of Tarvin's also wanted to find out if the squirrels were paying attention to any other sounds or sights...

"I wanted to know if they might be paying attention to other information, as well," says Emma Lucore.

So she began a study on the eastern gray squirrel, and found that after collecting and analyzing the data, it was pretty obvious that the squirrels were paying very close attention to the bird chatter!

"When squirrels are hearing chatter coming from other birds, that chatter conveys a message or a cue that apparently these birds feel pretty safe," says Tarvin. "And the squirrels apparently interpret that to mean that the environment is relatively safe."

According to Daniel Blumstein, a behavioral ecologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, these results are very convincing. Not only do they give us insight into the cues that animals take from each other, but he says they also "can be really important in certain situations for allowing animals to better estimate the likelihood that they're going to be able to engage in things without being killed."

"Most of us have been thinking about the risky side of things, not the safety side of things," Blumstein says. "Yet both sorts of public information are out there for the taking if you know what to clue in on."

Check out all of the details on NPR.

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