Eavesdropping grey squirrels infer safety from bird chatter


When multiple species are vulnerable to a common set of predators, it is advantageous for individuals to recognize information about the environment provided by other species. Eastern gray squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis) and other small mammals have been shown to exploit heterospecific alarm calls as indicators of danger. However, many species-especially birds-emit non-alarm auditory cues such as contact calls when perceived predator threat is low, and such public information may serve as cues of safety to eavesdroppers. We tested the hypothesis that eavesdropping gray squirrels respond to "bird chatter" (contact calls emitted by multiple individuals when not under threat of predation) as a measure of safety. We compared vigilance behavior of free-ranging squirrels in the presence of playbacks of bird chatter vs non-masking ambient background noise lacking chatter after priming them with a playback recording of a red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) call. Squirrels responded to the hawk call playbacks by significantly increasing the proportion of time they spent engaged in vigilance behaviors and the number of times they looked up during otherwise non-vigilance behaviors, indicating that they perceived elevated predation threat prior to the playbacks of chatter or ambient noise. Following the hawk playback, squirrels exposed to the chatter treatment engaged in significantly lower levels of vigilance behavior (i.e., standing, freezing, fleeing, looking up) and the decay in vigilance behaviors was more rapid than in squirrels exposed to the ambient noise treatment, suggesting squirrels use information contained in bird chatter as a cue of safety. These findings suggest that eastern gray squirrels eavesdrop on non-alarm auditory cues as indicators of safety and adjust their vigilance level in accordance with the vigilance level of other species that share the same predators.


Public Library of Science

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PLoS One



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Behavioral responses, Public information, Foraging groups, Tungara frogs, Threat, Cues, Mechanisms, Vigilance, Benefits