Tuesday, November 15, 2005

What's "Pellet Gun" in Squirrel-ese?

Squirrels can be very vocal animals, as backyard and park observers know, and now scientists have translated some of their squirrel-speak.

The findings, published recently in the journal Animal Behavior, present some of the most detailed information to date on squirrel vocalizations, which the researchers now believe constitute a complex language that is unique to the animals.

The team of zoologists focused their analysis on alarm calls of the Richardson's ground squirrel, Spermophilus richardsonii, which is the most common ground squirrel in Canada.

Squirrels often communicate with whistles, chirps and chucks, which sound like the word "chuck." Whistles and chirps resemble the sounds that many birds make.

"A chuck is a short duration trailing element, which when added to the end of a syllable, harshens the offset of a call so that it punctuates the end of the syllable with a click," explained James Hare, one of the study's authors.
[Sorta like the 'click' of the safety coming off?]

"The squirrel whistles and chirps are roughly equivalent to those of birds, with a whistle having a more or less constant pitch and a chirp decreasing in pitch over its duration."
Hare and his team coaxed squirrels to emit alarm calls by tossing a tan-colored brimmed hat in front of the animals. The hat mimics a bird or animal predator in color and can move low and fast.
[Note to self: don't throw hats at squirrels before loosing a round.]

"In effect then, whistles that incorporate chucks say 'there's a predator of moderate threat that's here,' whistles without chucks say 'there's a predator of seemingly moderate threat around here somewhere,' while chirps that in nature don't incorporate chucks say, "I'm ducking for cover here because there's an immediate danger,'" Hare told Discovery News.

Hare and his colleagues believe such sounds are part of a sophisticated language that he said "likely evolved just as all other communication systems have: by chance association of certain cues with significant events at first and selection favoring individuals who detected and responded appropriately to the broadcast of such cues." [Darwin, again. Next they'll tell us that the chirps and chucks are Indo-European in origin and may not apply to Far Eastern targets squirrels.]

Although squirrels risk their lives when they call out to warn others of threats, Hare said other squirrels might admire this behavior, thus increasing the caller's social status, not unlike humans who look up to heroes. [GET SERIOUS!!! See any squirrels with Purple Hearts lately?]

Hare said other animals, such as birds, probably understand at least some squirrel language, since they also may benefit from the alarm calls. [At least one Hare does...]

While chickadees and other birds often are welcomed into gardens by homeowners, squirrels frequently are viewed as pests. Hare wishes greater understanding of the complex social lives and communication systems of squirrels will provide "hope that humans will gain a greater appreciation and stop persecuting these animals." [Not 'complex' at all. Eat the birds' food, die!]

Discovery Channel


Scarlette said...

I don't persecute squirrels. I like squirrels. I would persecute a possum, though. They're ugly.

Do you shoot and eat squirrels, Dad?

Dad29 said...


Then I leave the eatin' part to them thar foxes and coyotes which are in the neighborhood.

Chipmunks are also very delectable lunchtime meals.

James Wigderson said...

We have an albino squirrel in our neighborhood. I say this for no particular reason.

Rick Lugari said...

Ahh yes, shooting rodents and tweety birds with my Daisy pump brought me endless hours of satisfaction as a kid. Plucking off tweety birds in flight with a 410 was pretty fun too.

Scarlette said...

I've never shot an animal, but I would shoot a possum. But not the babies, even though they're ugly too.
I would persecute that albino squirrel every day. His self esteem would hit rock bottom and he would "end it all" over at Dad's by making himself an easy target.
I say this for no particular reason other than to amuse myself.

michael a litscher said...

Tree huggers, please avert your eyes. Just skip over this post.

One year, instead of a deer license, I splurged and got a sportsman's license. I know - whop-de-do.

So opening morning, I'm sitting on a log with my .44 in my lap, and a squirrel decides to give me a bunch of crap, hooting and hollering. Not a good thing to have so much attention drawn to you while you're patiently waiting for bambi to wander into view.

I put up with the squirrel's abuse for 10, maybe 15 minutes when it dawns on me that I have a sportsman's license, which allows me to shoot squirrels.

Well, Mr. Squirrel was only about 10 feet away on the side of a tree giving me the what-for when I sighted him in and sent a +p+ 240 grain Hornady XTP his way.

After the echo of gunfire dissipated through the woods, the only sound left was the ringing in my ears.

There's a reason people hunt squirrels with a .22 and not a .44 - way too much super-sonic energy delivered into way too small of a target.