Squirrel calls have a lot to teach us as bird language observers (what is bird language?). Even though squirrels aren't birds they still have a wide array of vocalizations that can help us understand about the impact of predators & other animals in the landscape such as deer.
One of the challenges that comes up with interpreting squirrel alarms is knowing whether their agitated calls are being made for territorial purposes or alarms. However there is a very simple way to know for certain that a particular “alarm” call you hear is either territorial or in response to a predator, and that’s what I’m going to share with you in this article.
This distinction applies primarily to highly territorial squirrels like the red squirrel so I’ll be explaining it in terms of their vocalizations. It should also apply fairly well to the Douglas squirrel because they’re similar species and their vocalizations tend to work in a similar manner.
Squirrel sounds and meanings
If you live in a place where there are red squirrels then you’ve probably noticed at times their endless chatter of clucks & chips. They’ll go up into the tree and shake their tail to draw attention to themselves while they go on and on with these loud calls that can be heard from quite a distance.
Most people will recognize this sound as an alarm because it has such an intense & anxious sound to it. And it is in fact an alarm. I’ve used this sound to find cats, detect hawks and track deer at a distance as they sneak away from me.
But squirrels also have another sound that they use regularly for a different purpose. This is like a loud rattle of various lengths that they make from various key points in their territory to advertise their boundaries to other squirrels.
It’s simple enough to tell these two calls apart but where it gets tricky is when these two calls are used together.
Sometimes you’ll hear squirrel alarms going off and it sounds like they might be responding to a predator, but then in the midst of all the commotion you’ll hear one of their trilling rattle calls.
This can be really confusing… is it an alarm or is it territorial behavior?
So how does it really work? In actual fact the squirrel “alarm” is used not only to scold predators but also in territorial situations when it is associated with rattle calls.
This is an important distinction to make in the field because I can’t tell you how many times I investigated these sounds expecting to find a predator when there was really nothing going on. After a while I started to lose faith that squirrels have any practical information to share with a bird language observer.
This was a mistake because sometimes there really is something going on that the squirrels are telling us about. I simply wasn’t seeing the whole picture of how squirrels use their calls.
When I realized that only alarms in the absence of rattle calls can be trusted as a true alarm for something like a predator it instantly put everything in perspective when I would hear those sounds. I suddenly understood why so many times I would investigate “Alarm calls” and find nothing.
This is such a simple distinction but it made a huge difference for me in my own bird language learning process.
I now know that when I hear rattle calls mixed in with the typical alarm calls that it’s probably just one squirrel invading another’s territory. I can hear this from a really long distance and it lets me know that there probably aren’t any cats sneaking around over there at the moment.
On the other hand, when I’m listening and I hear only the chattering alarm calls, now I’m much more confident that there’s something happening and I can hear the correlation to other bird alarms that may be also happening around that time.
The end result is I’m a lot more precise and a lot more certain about my bird language interpretations.
So that’s it! If you pay attention for this when you’re out in the field I know it’s going to make a huge difference for your understanding of the squirrel language and bird language that you hear.
Now let’s get out there and listen to some squirrels!
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Hi, my name is Brian and I created this website to share my love for nature. I’m here to show you step-by-step how you can learn cool and practical skills like bird language, animal tracking and nature observation.