If you have squirrels in your backyard, you will find these rodents engaging in a variety of activities. You may see them grooming, chasing, eating, bearing their young, foraging for food, and flicking their tails.
Of these, the most astounding is their tail flicking. What exactly are they doing when they flick their tails? Why do squirrels flick their tails? Is it a mating ritual or a warning? Read on to find out all about it.
Why Do Squirrels Flick Their Tails? 5 Reasons
Here are 5 reasons why squirrels flick their tails.
1. To Communicate
Squirrels are quite taciturn. At the most, they will make a chattering noise or a grinding noise when they are eating.
However, they do communicate — just differently. Squirrels use their tails to communicate with fellow members of their species.
Flicking their tails is also a way of sounding an alarm. When squirrels flick their tails in long, flag-like movements, it is a signal to the other members about the presence of a predator.
Such flicks are often accompanied by vocalizations like chirping clicks and a long “waaa” sound.
Scientists also observed that the different calls associated with the tail flicking were specific to the predator’s route of approach.
So, if the predator was coming from the sky, the sounds would be different, and when they approached from the ground, the sounds made were different.
2. Warning Other Squirrels
Why do squirrels flick their tails? A squirrel will flick its tail rapidly to tell other squirrels to back off.
For example, if a squirrel senses that someone is getting too close to their territory, it will send off a warning with a tail flick. However, not all squirrel species are sensitive about their territory; some do not mind and live in a happy community. But if we’re talking about the red squirrels, they ain’t sharing.
It can also be about food. You probably know about squirrels and their nut-stashing, but did you know they don’t believe that sharing is caring?
While they eat some food immediately, they save leftovers for later. They also collect and store food for the colder months. And when they are doing so, their tails are sending the very same message.
3. Alarmed or Startled
To a squirrel, a tail is like an expressive face. When they are startled or alarmed, the tail starts wagging.
Tail flicking is the response of an alarmed squirrel to a predator and is his way of saying, “Hey, I see you and will run off if you come any closer”. So, if a squirrel stands still and starts flicking its tail, it may have encountered a coyote, bobcats, foxes, humans, etc.
And if it’s a snake, the flicking motion will help the squirrel shunt heat from his body and fool the reptile.
A mother squirrel who notices a predator nearby or moving closer to her young may also react by flicking.
In a study published in the Journal of Comparative Psychology, scientists found that squirrels used their tails to express exasperation or frustration.
During the study, 22 fox squirrels were trained to open a box. The box contained something special for the rodents, walnuts, one of their favorite delicacies. Once they had mastered the act, they were put through tests to check their reactions.
The squirrels would get excited at the sight of the box, but there was a catch. The box was either empty or locked. This frustrated the animal, and the more they got frustrated, the more their tails flicked. These flicks were quick and darting, clearly different from other types of flicking.
But don’t blame them; you would do the same if you put a dollar in the snack machine and did not get any.
We know that animals perform some crazy rituals to attract a mate. So, squirrels using their tails for the same is not really a shocker.
You can witness this courting ritual twice a year, once from January to February and the next time from May to June.
During this time, the males will flick their bushy tails to attract the attention of a female who is ready to mate. This flicking of the tail is rather unusual; it can also be considered a courting dance. The males will shiver, tremble, or shake their tails and check the reaction of the female.
If the female responds positively and exhibits interest, the male will take a step closer and perform the dance again. Whether the male reaches the female or the female comes to him — that is, when they come closer — the visual serenade ends.
Now, the chase begins. The female will run, and the male has to catch her and guard her against other potential mates until she is ready to mate. If he fails and another male moves in, the pairing is off, and the ritual is repeated.
5. Walking on the Wire or Breaking a Fall
Squirrel tails are functional appendages. They help the animal jump from tree to tree, make swift turns, and combat extreme weather conditions, especially the cold.
They are also used for balancing. The long, bushy tail of a squirrel offers counterbalance when it is walking on thin branches or even on wires. At such times, the tails will flick from left to right to even out the rodent’s imbalanced weight. So, if you see a squirrel flicking its tail while on a power line, the chap is just tightrope walking.
But if it is not good at it and has a fall, the tail will come in handy again. It will spread out its tail so that it acts like a parachute and slows the fall. It will also help distribute its weight evenly, which reduces the impact of the fall on the body. So, now you know how the squirrel performs all those reverse high jumps without getting injured.