Super sleuth squirrels eavesdrop on the chatter of nearby birds to work out when it is safe to sneak past, according to a new study.
The grey incarnation of the furry-tailed rodents are said to be able to distinguish between different calls made by potential predators, giving them an idea of when is best to emerge.
Scientists in the US observed the squirrels waiting patiently to come off high alert upon hearing the shriek of a predator call – and becoming more relaxed when they are confident the birds are engaging in more casual chatter.
More than 50 wild eastern grey squirrels in public parks and residential areas were monitored in Ohio, where researchers simulated possible danger by playing a recording of a dangerous red-tailed hawk.
That clip was followed by songbird chatter or ambient sounds lacking bird calls, and the behaviour of each squirrel was monitored for a further three minutes.
Published in the Plos One journal, the study found every squirrel showed heightened predator vigilance after hearing the hawk – including behaviours such as freezing, looking up or fleeing.
Those who heard the bird chatter playback afterwards displayed less anxiety and returned to normal levels of watchfulness more quickly than squirrels who did not hear the more peaceful sounds.
According to the team behind the research, the results suggest squirrels are able to tap into the casual chatter of many bird species as an indicator of safety.
“We knew that squirrels eavesdropped on the alarm calls of some bird species, but we were excited to find that they also eavesdrop on non-alarm sounds that indicate the birds feel relatively safe,” the authors said.
“Perhaps in some circumstances, cues of safety could be as important as cues of danger.”