Why City Squirrels Watch Our Every Move

It's pretty sly of squirrels to pick up on where people are looking, something demonstrated in our closest animal companions.

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Jul 22 2014, 5:20pm
Urban Eastern gray squirrel, Washington DC Image: Wikimedia Commons

You'd think that Western Australia has all the crazy-ass animals worth studying—everything's potently poisonous, striped, or the world's largest killer in its respective killing category. But a prophet is never accepted in his hometown, and all that jazz, so it's only natural that Western Australian zoologists would travel around the globe just to study squirrels in New York.

Eastern gray squirrels, like so many liberal arts majors, have modified their behavior and taken up residence in New York. Unlike so many liberal arts majors, though, who decamp to Portland to start pickle companies, squirrels thrive in the five boroughs, as the team discovered while harassing them in a mild and scientific manner.

“Squirrels were approached tangentially on a trajectory that took the observer within ∼2 m of them and we measured alert distance, flight initiation distance (FID), and distance fled for each focal individual,” the study, in Journal of Zoology, stated. “Squirrels showed little sign of being alerted to the pedestrian if he remained on the footpath and did not look at them (only 5% of individuals moved away), but 90% of squirrels moved away, with longer FID and flight distance, when approached by a pedestrian that moved off the footpaths and looked at them.”

It's pretty sly of squirrels to pick up on where people are looking, something demonstrated in our closest animal companions. Domesticated dogs pick up on cues based on where people are looking. "Dogs have evolved to sharing their lives with humans," researcher Jozsef Topal told The Week. "And they gained new skills that support their social interaction with humans."

While squirrels aren't domesticated like dogs, being urbanized apparently takes some of the same skills.

"This research shows squirrels are able to modulate their behavior when humans behave in a predictable manner, reducing unnecessary responses and improving their ability to persist in an urban environment," Bill Bateman, senior lecturer at Curtin University and the lead author of the squirrel-bothering study, said in a press release.

Hipster city squirrels are able to do just as well as their country-bumpkin cousins because the city is, in some respects, an even better place to live than the woods. "For a squirrel, the city provides a habitat with fewer predators than in the woods, and food tends to be available all year around,” Bateman said.

Squirrels are sharing our environment and also our problems. “Traffic, however, remains the biggest killer for all urban wildlife,” he said.

The vibrant city life, then takes in the squirrels just as it has taken in the tired and poor and hungry, for pretty much the same reasons, and they tolerate city living through parks and staying out late. "Generally, it seems animals do well in urbanized areas if they can eat a wide range of things and are able to move from one green space to another,” Bateman said. “Being nocturnal also helps to avoid humans, as well as being behaviorally able to deal with humans and their disturbance, as squirrels do.”

As our cities continue to spread, animals are either forced out or forced to adapt, like London's famous foxes, and New York's famous rats.

"As we rapidly increase the spread of urbanization around the world, urban areas may end up being important places for some wildlife,” Bateman said, “so it would be good to know what they like about those areas, what allows them to do well and whether humans want them to be there."

That actually makes the “let's go to New York” angle of Australian researchers make sense—seeing how venomous brown snakes react to you getting too close sounds like a bummer waiting to happen.