Do you hear protein? Find out what they’re talking about

I study squirrel behavior and the most common question I get asked is, “How do I get them out of my yard?” »

The life of a squirrel is not as easy as you think. These animals are relatively solitary and must guard their hard-earned food supplies to survive Canada’s harsh winters. My students and I are most interested in how squirrels use sound, or what we call voice communication, to survive in harsh reality.

lonely beasts

The North American red squirrel leads a rather solitary lifestyle. It spends most of the day in an area of ​​50-100 square meters foraging for pine cones and other food such as berries and mushrooms.

In summer and autumn, squirrels collect pine cones and store them in a place called a hiding place. They have to work to protect their hiding place because they are animals that steal a lot from each other. In fact, a squirrel can steal up to 90% of its reserves from neighboring individuals.

These little critters go back and forth, dragging and stealing pine cones to help them survive the harsh Canadian winters. While moving, they often make a loud call called rattles, which interests me. My students and I observe and record squirrels to understand the role of these calls.

In the past, it has been suggested that this call was used to warn other squirrels not to enter the territory – which in a sense meant that if you entered, you risked being attacked by the person who lives there. My research has led to a slightly different vision of this cry.

Recordings of various red squirrel sounds.

neighbors and strangers

This call may indeed be warning other squirrels to stay away, but its main function is to identify its sender to those who hear it. When a squirrel moves through its territory or that of its neighbors, it periodically makes rattles. These calls announce who he is and where he is. Thus, squirrels know the position of their neighbors during the day. This information can help limit aggressive interactions, chases, and fights.

This call can also signal to neighbors who is more likely to rob them and who is a threat. Some people are more at risk of theft than others.

In behavioral ecology, this phenomenon is called the “dear enemy” effect. This means that in order to preserve the territory, it is useful to know the relative threat from neighbors compared to the threat from outsiders. In general, a neighbor an animal knows is less of a threat than a stranger.

In the case of the red squirrel, it has been shown that not all neighbors pose the same degree of threat. Therefore, recognizing your neighbor by his cry allows you to understand the risk you are taking and respond appropriately.

Squirrels lead a solitary lifestyle.
(Shutterstock)

social cries

Announcing or identifying oneself is a vocal behavior common to many animals. Several species of marine mammals, such as dolphins and seals, make calls containing information about who is making them. They allow the recognition of social companions and offspring.

Some primate species also provide information about their personality through their calls. Again, this is often used in social interactions to reduce aggression during foraging. This applies in particular to baboons and capuchins. Therefore, it is not surprising that an animal such as the red squirrel also uses information about the identity of the neighbor to manage complex interactions associated with the territory.

My students and I found that squirrels make these calls throughout their territory, as well as in the territory of their immediate neighbors. By observing when and where squirrels make their thundering call, we hope to demonstrate that this signal serves to announce their identity and location, and not just to drive others out of their territory.

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