How to speak squirrel

Apr 10, 2012

Ever wonder what those woodland creatures we call squirrels are talking about? Are they judging us with those bushy tails and little hands, or are they just trying to say hello?

Now you don't have to wonder. Squirrel vocalization expert Robert Lishak will discuss and take your questions about squirrel talk. Lishak, along with the Post's John Kelly, will also talk about squirrel behavior and any other squirrel-related questions you may have.

Submit your questions and opinions now.

In case you missed it:
- Tommy Tucker, Washington's most famous squirrel
- D.C. Squirrel chats about the heat
- Are we all nuts? DC Squirrel talks about the end of the world
- Your squirrel photos

I am Dr. Lishak and I will be happy to address your questions/comments about gray squirrel vocalizations!

Since long before Dr. Dolittle turned in his thesis, humans have wanted to talk to the animals. Just witness all the energy put into communicating with apes. Well, there's an animal a lot more common around here than apes: the squirrel. And Dr. Robert Lishak at Auburn is among biologists who study the sounds squirrels make and what those sounds mean.

Dr. Lishak is my guest today. Please talk to him about how he talks to squirrels.

I have never listened to squirrel vocalizations but I am certain they also communicate with tale signs. I have twice used my arm to mimic tale waves and have gotten a response from squirrels outside my window. What do scientists know about the tale signs?

Tail flashing is an important visual signal used by squirrels to indicate alarm.  It is one of the first signals seen when squirrels discover the location of a disturbing stimulus.  When the stimulus is more threatening, the tail flashing is accompanied by vocalizations.  One of my graduate students, Robert Turnbull, completed a MS Degree study during which he used a model squirrel with a motorized tail.

In your study from 1984 on the alarm vocalizations of the grey squirrel you don't define will the differences between the vocalizations. By the end of the paper it seems that the kuk vocalization is shortened version of the qua vocalization which is also the moan vocalization. How are these different? How are they the same? Acoustically they look different, so are they conveying different meanings to conspecifics?

Yes, think of the alarm calls as a progression of calls where the early sounds (mostly kuks) indicate immediate danger and the last sounds indicate the all clear or "I cannot see the predator any longer". 

I remember a time I threw an empty cup full of ice into a trash can when out popped a squirrel who was quite focal towards me over having been iced. Was the squirrel communicating anything to me? By the way, I am sorry and I do not not let ice fall into trash bins just in case there is another squirrel inside.

I do not like to attach anthropomorphic descriptions to the behaviors of lower animals so I would suspect the squirrel was exhibiting  alarm rather than anger.

Do squirrels really have a language? Say something in Squirrel.

Don't think of squirrel calls as being the equivalent of our words.  Instead, think of these sounds as signals that squirrels innately respond to like you would jump if startled by someone slamming a door.

Why is there no annual Squirrel Week on the Discovery Channel? A travesty, I say!

We really should team with them to produce a week of squirrel-centric programming. And of course Discovery has "Chompy," the big inflatable shark. The Post should put a big inflatable squirrel on our downtown Washington HQ.

Okay...the sounds we heard from the tree were both "kuk" and "quaa" going back and forth repeatedly and loudly for quite a long time! Do you think they were arguing whether the predator was still around?

They were not arguing as such, but simply indicating their motivational state by the sounds they were producing.  If a potential predator was present. their calls would have revealed the location of the predator to other squirrels as well as indicating to the predator that it has been spotted and the element of surprise is gone.

My dog wants to know how squirrel tastes with steak sauce and what the appropriate way to prepare a squirrel for consumption is (food safety after all...)

If your dog is anything like my dog, he doesn't really care what squirrel tastes like. He's up for eating anything he finds on the ground, no matter the particular flavor.

As for squirrel preparation, stay tuned. My Thursday column may have something to say about that. There are dozens of recipes.

I have a rescue squirrel that lives with my family. She is very sweet. Sometimes she will make a noise that sounds like her teeth are chattering. It usually seems like it's when she is searching for something, like a nut that she had hidden. Is this common?

Tooth chattering is an aggressive signal.  Your squirrel is indicating that you need to keep your distance or you might get bitten

Hello! I've read your articles about squirrels and hoped you might be able to answer a question. There always used to be so many squirrels on the Mall, but recently there seem to be almost none at all (a few weekends ago I only saw one over the course of several hours). The same thing seems to have happened about the same time last year. Do you know what could be happening to them? I appreciate your help in solving this mystery! -TE

I don't know the answer to that. I do know that regularly over the last four or five years I've heard from readers who said the squirrel population seemed to be on the decline. I think it's a very localized thing and I haven't seen any serious data on it. It could be that there were MORE squirrels there than usual the last time you saw them -- populations explode and then plummet sometimes .

Dear Mr. Kelly, Thank you very much for your interesting columns, especially those on squirrels. While this question does not pertain to the vocalization patterns of squirrels, the subject of your column today, there is one question I've had for years about squirrels; how do they engineer a nest that can hold together in a 40 mile an hour winds? If you and your expert could explain the engineering principles of a squirrel nest and how a small rodent can construct a nest that has such durability, I think your readers would find it most interesting. Thank you again for your interesting columns. Sincerely, Sam in Rockville.

Wonderful question!  The reason the leaf nests are so durable is that they are constructed while the leaves on the branches incorporated into the nest are green and pliable.  When the leaves and stems die, they harden and become pretty resistant to being unwoven by wind, rain.  Eventually when the leaves and stems begin to degrade, the nest will fall apart.

More questions from Susan M.. 1.) Do squirrels mate for life? 2.) I heard the meow & chirp sound one evening on a walk with my husband at dusk. We stopped to listen and we would have sworn there were two squirrels up in a tree going on and on together. They were pretty loud. What were they saying to each other to go on for so long? Was it only one squirrel throwing its voice? We do know there are cats that live in the vicinity.

Gray squirrels are mostly solitary animals and do not mate for life.  Twice a year they participate in mating chasing which you have likely seen but didn't recognize as such.  A mating chase consists of several males following a female that is sexually reciptive.  They indicate their interest in mating by producing mating calls which sound lik a rapid series of stiffled sneezes.  When they corner the female there is usually a lot of squeeking, growling, and tooth chattering heard but at least one of the males will mate with her.  Sometimes the chases go on for hours and if you can verbally mimic the stiffled sneeze sound you can actually lure males to your location.

Do squirrels of different varieties recognize or talk with one another?

Many animals produce interspecific (among members of different species) alarm calls that are universally recognized by other animals.  So, for sure we know that even distantly related squirrels can understand those calls.

I like to grow tomato plants every year in my small garden on Cap Hill. Any way to discourage the squirrels that steal all my tomatoes each year? And why do they tend to pull it off the vine, take what looks like 2-3 bites out of it, and then leave the rest lying there to rot?

There is not much you can do to protect your crops other than using netting of some sort.  Even then, these 3-D problem solvers can often find a way into the enclosure.  Think about how hard it is to keep them out of bird feeders that have been designed to be squirrel proof!

To show you how long squirrels have been an objet of interest in Washington, check out this 1901 police report about a boy reprimanded for chasing squirrels on the grounds of the U.S. Capitol.

I often hear squirrels making a long sound that almost sounds like they are sucking air through their teeth. It does not sound much like any of the recorded sounds in the article. What does this sound mean? -and- If one were to try to talk to squirrels in the yard, what kind of sound should one make?

It sounds like you are describing the moan portion of the modulated quaa moan call.  It is often described as a squeekly sound.

I know exactly where the albino squirrel came from. I saw several dementors from the DC Department of Motor Vehicles surrounding John Kelly's car, about to write dozens of parking tickets. From behind me I heard "Expecto patronum!" I turned and saw the squirrel emerge in brilliant white light from Kelly's wand, scattering the ticket writers. John, did you get in trouble with the city Department of Magic, which restricts the use of charms by journalists?

And here I was hoping my patronus would be a stag or a leopard or something cool like that. Instead, it's a squirrel. Oh well, at least it's not a rat.

And, no, I didn't get in trouble. I am nothing if not charming.

On Monday I wrote about Tommy Tucker, a squirrel from D.C. whose owner would dress him up. I guess his modern counterpart is Sugar Bush Squirrel. I can't decide whether the image of him at Ground Zero is in bad taste or not.

Hi, Robert. I love squirrels and I have several questions for you.

1. I name our squirrels. When we pay attention we can see distinct facial diferences. I put out nuts and call them. Is it possible they can begin recognizing their names or certain hand signals?

2. How long do they live?

3. When do adolescent squirrels get the boot? Do they make dreys in the same tree as their parents?

4. Are there any dangerous foods we should avoid giving them?

5. Why are some squirrels aggressive while others are docile? All of our squirrels are nice, but I know someone who gets her screen door destroyed. Of course, she slso greased the birdfeeder pole just so she could laugh at them during her morning coffee. Do squirrels sense people's personalities?

Thanks! Susan M.

If your squirrels are associating their names with a food reward, you are in fact training them via operant conditioning and yes, they will respond to the name or genture.  In nature, the average life span is about 2-3 years.  In captivity, I think the record is 17 years but on average about 10.  Most animals show an aversion to staying in the home nest as they are beginning sexual maturity and as a result will leave on their own without needing to be shown the door.  Whether a squirrel is aggressive or not depends on its sex (males more aggressive than females without young), its age, and the situation it finds itself in (fighting over limited resources like food).  I am not sure if squirrels sense personalities but if the squirrel is routinely fed in the same location by the same person, it can learn something about your nature by simple association.

What does it mean when a squirrels starts "chucking" or barking at you from a tree limb?

The barking calls are indicative of the squirrel simply exhibiting alarm by your presence or the sounds and movements you are making.

I used to live in a three-story apartment building in upper NW DC and occasionally let my cat come outside with me for some fresh air. Whenever I did this, the local squirrels would scamper over and screech at her, an earsplitting caw, as if to say "go back inside cat! There is nothing delicious about us at all!" My cat was the only one I ever saw outside in this neighborhood so I wonder if she did seem like an exotic creature to them. Now I live in Arlington with big hulking squirrels that are much more interested in the peanuts my neighbor leaves out for them than they are in yelling at my cat. I do wish I could speak squirrel, because I would tell them that they don't need to bury their peanuts in my garden.

One of my graduate students trained a litter of cats to hunt squirrels and from this study we found that squirrels are very much aware of the cat's motivation.  If the cat is lying on the ground, the squirrels pay no attention to it (think about what you have seen on TV where a pride of lions has just finished feasting on a zebra and are lying around with swollen bellies--the antelope reconize that they are not hunting and will approach the lions) but if the cat is stalking and making eye contact with the squirrels they recognize this as a threat.

Your article in today's Metro says go to .com/JohnKelly to hear them "talking." Can't figure out what to click on?

Sorry about that. Click here and the sounds are in a box on the left-hand side. Take your laptop outside and see how the squirrels react!

Dr. Lishak: I recently read about research in California on how squirrels interact with rattlesnakes. They apparently heat their tails somehow, which gives of a warning or message that the snakes can "see" in the infrared spectrum. Do you think there may be other ways squirrels communicate that humans haven't figure out yet?

I saw the study you are referring to that mentioned the heat transfer to the tail of the ground squirrels (likely by a process of vasodilation).  It would not surprise me if someone found that gray squirrels were using the same physiological mechanism to possibly redirect a snake bite to a less vulnerable portion of the squirrel's body because rattlesnakes and squirrels have been living together for a long time.  The sensory world of our mammalian cousins is one that we often assume is similar to ours but in reality, it must be very different.  Think about animals that use ultrasounds for communication or those that read geomagnetic lines of force to orient and navigate from place to place. 

Just wondering why the Post does a Squirrel Week? It just seems rather random. Why not Pigeon Week or something similar. (on another note, I was in Florida recently and didn't realize until I got back to the northeast that I couldn't recall seeing a single squirrel the entire time)

Why a Squirrel Week? Why does Discovery do Shark Week? Why does New Orleans do  Mardi Gras? Why do people climb Everest?

I can't answer those questions, but as for why The Post does Squirrel Week, it's because I am fascinated by them and I have a column. Put the two together and voila. Frankly, I don't think pigeons are that interesting, but maybe someone can convince me otherwise.

Should I avoid giving squirrels anything in particular?

I don't know what you shouldn't give them but I know that many squirrel lovers think dried corn on the cob is especially enjoyed by them. Peanuts, too, though they can be expensive. I've seen several references to them liking avocadoes, though that seems especially indulgent to me. There is one thing you should not give baby squirrels and that's cow milk. Wildlife rehabilitators I've spoken with say it's a common misconception that baby squirrels respond to droppers of milk. It can actually harm them.

Dr. Lishak: When people hear of your research, some  might think, "Oh, they're only squirrels." But I've interviewed many scientists who came to squirrels after studying other, more charismatic animals. Can you talk about why squirrels are a good animal to study and how what we learn from them might be applicable to other animals?

There is a principle called the August Krogh principle that says that each kind of question is best answered by using the appropriate animal model.  For example, for genetics studies the animal of choice has been the fruit fly.  The reason there have been so many studies that incorporate squirrel models (gray squirrels or any of the other tree or ground squirrels) is that they exhibit some aspect of their behavior that allows one to tease out the stimuli that evoke it. Some species of ground squirrels live in colonies and are much more social and interactive than are gray squirrels so they are best suited to answer questions about resource partitioning, kin selection, etc.

I think one of the union locals has an inflatable rat you could use. They'd probably let you borrow it, the Post being the liberal media and all.

I don't think that sends the same message. The reason we like squirrels is because they don't look like rats. Squirrels keep the same hours as us: up at dawn, busy during the day, then asleep at night. Rats skulk around in the dark. Squirrels have cute, bushy tails. Rats of skinny greasy tails.

So is there a recording/sound I can use to keep the squirrels away from my bulbs and apple trees?

The problem with disturbing stimuli like alarm calls used to scare off squirrels or other animals is that the pest soon habituates to the presence of the stimulus and eventually it  ignores it .  Remember the Heckle and Jeckle cartoon that often showed the crows perched on the arms of the scarecrow intended to scare that away?  This is what happens in nature unless you can continuously change the intensity of the disturbing stimulus.

When I was a kid in Bethesda, I tried to make friends with the squirrels every summer. I "called" them by mushing my mouth to hand and making long kissing noises and throwing out peanuts when they came to investigate. My greatest triumph was when I finally got one of the little black squirrels to take peanut butter off a baby spoon after a month of feeding it. I guess I don't really have a point except to say I was the squirrel whisperer and I still love squirrels haha

In my old Silver Spring neighborhood there was a very tame squirrel that everyone knew about. I used to feed her peanuts on our porch, while sitting in a glider. She would come up on my lap and take a peanut from my hand.

I once left the bowl of peanuts in the house, on a windowsill next to an open, screened window. The squirrel gnawed through the screen, got to the peanuts and gorged herself, before I chased her out.

The lesson: Don't get too friendly with squirrels. They are wild animals and will remind you of that.

I heard kuks and quaas going back and forth in a tree. It was dusk and they were very loud. This went on for a long time. Is it possible the squirrels did not agree that a predator was no longer in the vicinity?

As long as the squirrels are producing kuks and quaas, you have to assume the predator or whatever the disturbing stimulus was, is still present.

because sharks have always captivated man - 1) we think of them as man-eating beasts that can sneak up on and destroy us; 2) they are one of the more dangerous creatures that we haven't managed to pen and manage on our own terms; 3) their habitat is not that penetrable to most average people, so they still maintain some element of mystique. Squirrels, though, hang out on my porch, leaving peach pits to rot, and sunning themselves. I don't think many people are as curious about them as sharks, and I certainly don't find them any more intriguing than other animals. That said, I've found the series cute and the squirrel's chats last year were fun.

I take delight in learning about things that we see everyday but don't really know that much about, things we take for granted. I didn't know there were names for the noises squirrels make, or that the same noise babies make to be fed is the one males make to get some action. I didn't know that after mating, males extrude a waxy plug into the female's vagina to block the sperm of other males who might mate with her later. I didn't know that females typically pull out the waxy plug. So much to learn about a species that is literally in our back yard.

I've been "speaking" squirrel for decades. I've found, in addition to using the vocalizations, using the hand in coordination really gets their attention. For squirrels, coordinated tail flicks seem to be a big part of the messaging. Use one hand (fingers slightly separated, relaxed, out and slightly curled), bend it away from the wrist (extensor) rapidly in sync with the vocalizations.

Yes, animals exhibit complex behaviors in response to simple stimuli even when the stimulus is not an exact copy of that found in nature.  The movement of a squirrel's tail is what the squirrel is responding to and although we did not alter the color, shape, size, etc. of the tails placed on our squirrel models, I would bet that factors other than motion are not important signals.

Of course, we also anthropomorphize squirrels more than we do with sharks. You would never see a shark dressed up in clothes, as with Tommy Tucker. Of course, Tommy may have wished he was a shark so he could bite his "mother's" hand off.

How can I say to a squirrel "Hurry and run away or my dogs will try to eat you?" Some squirrels around here don't run away until the last second when my dogs are trying to grab them.

Squirrels quickly learn which predators to stay away from because they are perceived as an immediate threat.  I would guess that the squirrels view  your dog as rather slow and that is why they allow him to approach so near before fleeing.  Dogs are not much of a threat to adult squirrels but sometimes get lucky.

Hello! I hoped you might be able to answer a question. There always used to be so many squirrels on the Mall, but recently there seem to be almost none at all (a few weekends ago I only saw one over the course of several hours). The same thing seems to have happened about the same time last year. Do you know what could be happening to them? I appreciate your help in solving this mystery!

Gray squirrels are oportunistic feeders and go to where they find food resources.  During early spring when the trees are budding, the squirrels will leave routine food sources like bird feeders and spend time high up in the trees feeding on buds or seeds.   As soon as the leaves appear and the seeds are gone, the squirrels will return to the handouts found at the mall.

I realize squirrels are smart. However why do they have such a hard time crossing a street. Never totaling commented to a direction, which sometimes leads to death.

I asked Richard Thorington, a squirrel expert at the Smithsonian, about this. He said a squirrel's natural escape plan invovles trying to confuse the predator. It's sort of like a running back zigging and zagging back and forth. This might work when a squirrel is being chased by a fox, say, but it doesn't work with a Chevy  Tahoe.

If McGruff the Crime Dog was chasing Tommy Tucker, would you intervene?

Is there any proof that Tommy committed a crime? I mean other than wearing a white suit before Memorial Day?

I've noticed squirrels vocalizing in the back yard when there is a predator (e.g. cat or hawk) around. Do the other back yard critters "understand" the alarm that the squirrels are sounding? How universal are these alarms among other species who enjoy the bird seed and peanuts in my back yard?

The alarm calls produced by most animals are interspecific signals and are appropriately interpreted by many species.  The jay call of a blue jay will cause a squirrel to scamper to safety and the kuk call of a squirrel will cause a bluejay to take flight.  Most of the alarm/distress calls have universal meaning because they conform to common "rules" which most animals are innately aware of.

"Leave my bird feeder alone!" in squirrel?

This is something that worked at my old house, where my birdfeeder was on a pole the squirrels would climb: I coated the pole with vaseline then sprinkled cayenne pepper on it. The squirrels would jump on the pole, slide down, then lick their paws. They didn't like the burning sensation and came to associate it with that feeder. This hasn't worked at our new house because the feeder is too close to a tree and a shed and they're just able to jump straight to it, bypassing the pole.

Why are some squirrels so aggressive (i.e. tearing up screen doors), while others are notoriously "polite"?

If you see a squirrel tearing up a screen door, you have to assume that there is some reward on the other side of the door to which the squirrel was once exposed.  My neighbor had the same problem when squirrels were attempting to tear through the screen door found on his screened in back porch.  The neighbors usually kept a bowl of dog food in that area so their dog could obtain food when hungry. When the dog was out in the yard the door was left in the open position.   The squirrels must have been taking advantage of that food so when the door was closed, they tried to gain access to it.  The way to stop them from ruining the screen is to simply remove all food from the porch, leave the door open, and let the squirrels discover that there is no food present.  They will soon forget about trying to enter the porch.

In one of your answers you indicated that squirrels identify the location of a predator? How precisely? Is this something like "in a tree" or "on the ground" or something more exact?

Squirrels identify the predator in two ways: first by looking at the predatorand making itself obvious by tailflashing so that other animals can see where it is looking, and second, by listening to where the most intense calls are coming from.  If you are in a woodlot and to your left you hear a squirrel kukking, in front of you you hear a squirrel giving quaas, and to your right you hear a squirrel giving moan calls, you can be sure that the predator has moved from your right and is now somewhere on your left where the kukking squirrel is located.  If we can determine the path the predator took by listening to the progression of calls, I cannot imagine why squirrels and other animals could not do the same to localize the predator.

This has been a very enjoyable and interesting discussion, but I am sorry to say that I have to sign off for now.  If there is continued interest in squirrels and their behaviors, we might be able to talk John into working on a third squirrel installment.  How about it, John?

My thanks to Dr. Lishak for joining us today and answering our squirrel questions. I hope it's been a reminder that seemingly simple things -- a squirrel making noise -- can have complex underpinnings. The next time you hear the chittering of a squirrel, try to ponder what's going on inside his tiny, nut-obsessed brain.

Stay tuned for the rest of Squirrel Week. And if you have any squirrel-related questions,  send them to me at

In This Chat
John Kelly
John Kelly's column "John Kelly's Washington" appears Sunday through Thursday online and in The Post. He blogs at "John Kelly's Commons." He started at The Post in 1989 as the deputy editor of the Weekend section. Since then he's edited Weekend, founded KidsPost and been a general assignment reporter in Metro. He drives an old sports car and plays the drums -- though not at the same time. He lives in Silver Spring, where he has one wife and two daughters.

John Kelly column archive
John Kelly Q&A archive
Robert Lishak
Robert Lishak has been teaching life sciences courses at Auburn University since 1976. He graduated with honors from Seton Hall University and earned his Ph.D. degree in zoology from Ohio State University. His area of specialization is the study of the behavior of animals, specifically squirrels, and he teaches a graduate-level course in ethology. His research interests involve the acoustic behaviors of animals and his studies have been published in peer-reviewed journals.
Recent Chats
  • Next: