Squirrels are adorable animals with long bushy tails that they like to twitch back and forth.
In fact, they do it so much that if you ever spend time watching squirrels, you’ll quickly notice their tail is an essential part of their communication & survival strategy.
And with good observation, you can learn a lot from a squirrel’s tail!
So why do squirrels twitch their tails so much?
Squirrels twitch their tails to let other squirrels know they sense danger. This also lets potential predators know the squirrel has detected the danger and there is no longer the element of surprise.
This is especially true when squirrels see a ground predator like a cat or a dog. You’ll notice they immediately start twitching their tail and making loud vocalizations directed towards the source of danger.
This flicking motion is the perfect tool to flag the attention of other distant squirrels so they can more easily spot the body language of a sentinel.
Alarm situations like this are one of the main reasons squirrels flick or twitch their tail, but tails certainly do a lot more than just communicate danger.
A few other reasons why Squirrels might twitch or shiver their tail are:
- Help to indicate different types of danger or levels of threat
- Let predators know the squirrel is aware (no element of surprise)
- Gain attention from the opposite sex
- To protect their territory & food sources from rival squirrels.
Let’s take a closer look at all the different things you can learn just from watching a squirrel’s tail. It’s one of the most useful parts of their body and serves many different functions.
Tail Twitching For Protection
Sometimes the way a squirrel uses it’s tail can tell you what kind of predators are lurking about in the forest.
Since most ground predators are unable to catch things up in the tree tops, squirrels are much more likely to flick their tails when they detect animals like cats, dogs, coyotes or even humans walking through the forest.
In this case, they flick their tails to help other nearby squirrels locate their position. They’re not so worried about being seen because the danger is on the ground.
If you see a squirrel flicking it’s tail like this, pay attention to which direction it’s facing. This will help you determine where the danger is coming from.
The bigger danger for a squirrel is aerial predators like hawks or owls because they can catch unsuspecting squirrels even when they’re not on the ground.
There just aren’t as many places for squirrels to hide from aerial predators.
In this case you’re much less likely to see tail flicking because that would give away their location.
Instead the squirrel will look for a hiding spot or flatten itself against a tree to keep a lower profile.
Amazingly, the squirrel might still vocalize, but they will use more high pitched sounds or short popping noises that are much harder to locate.
If you ever hear high pitched squirrel chattering, but are unable to locate any squirrel flicking it’s tail, this could be a sign of a nearby aerial predator like a hawk or owl.
Territorial Tail Flicking
As we’ve already learned, the main reason for tail flicking is to flag the attention of other squirrels.
It helps them to locate each other from long distances, and for obvious reasons this is very helpful during alarm situations.
However, tail flicking also plays an important role in territorial situations.
It’s important to realize here that not all squirrels are particularly territorial.
For example grey squirrels tend to be quite happy living communally and will often be seen feeding and interacting peacefully. Therefore, Grey squirrel tail flicks are much less likely to be territorial.
Some of the more common territorial squirrels include Red Squirrels and Douglas Squirrels.
In this case, squirrels will frequently use tail flicking as a deterrent to let rivals know they’ve been seen and there might be trouble ahead if they invade.
It requires careful attention to accurately distinguish the difference between territorial tail flicking and alarmed tail flicking.
To do this, ask questions like:
- What species of squirrel are you watching?
- How many squirrels are involved in the interaction?
- How long does the agitated behavior continue?
- What kinds of vocalizations are associated with the event?
Finding A Mate
Breeding season is a great time to watch squirrels because it really mixes up the variety of behaviors you get to see.
You can identify when the squirrel mating season is approaching by the almost frantic chasing & wooing behaviors as males chase their desired females around the forest.
This is yet another area where a big bushy tail comes in handy.
They start by twitching their tail around a squirrel of the opposite gender and try to get them interested enough to come over to them.
When the female squirrel gets close enough, the dance stops and the chase is on.
Given that squirrels are far from monogamous, the male often has to compete with other males in the finding of its mate.
The male squirrel will chase the female squirrel until he finally catches her.
When they finally catch her, he will protect her from the advances of other males until she’s ready to mate.
Sometimes the gamble pays off, and other times they get caught in the act by another male squirrel and the chase is back on.
Mating often results in fights between dominant male squirrels that leaves one with a mate and the other on the ground.
Balance & Travel
All this chasing & movement in the treetops means that squirrels require excellent balance & flexibility.
Squirrels are often seen running through trees, or jumping from branch to branch, whether they’re mating, looking for food, or escaping from a predator, even running on powerlines.
They do this by using their tails to balance themselves.
As they move along powerlines and other narrow branches you will notice how their tails will continually move to provide counterbalance and momentum.
Much like a trapeze wire walker will use a long pole to keep their center of gravity, squirrels use their tails.
They will adjust their tail in whichever direction it needs to assure that it doesn’t fall from a great height and hurt itself.
Of course sometimes accidents do happen. And their tails play a role in fall recovery too.
Bracing For A Fall
If you spend enough time watching squirrels, you’ll undoubtedly get to witness some pretty risky jumps & leaps.
And though their parkour skills are pretty darn good, most Squirrels will at some point fall from their trees.
But just when you think “there’s no way that thing lived”, sure enough, it’s back up and running around in its fuzzy glory.
This is because squirrels always have a backup plan so that they don’t receive serious bodily harm.
For starters, their tail can serve as a parachute to slow itself down as it approaches the ground and ensures a softer landing.
The tail also serves as a bit of a crash pad.
The will slow down the impact with their tail parachute then use it to distribute their weight as they land so that their bodies don’t take the brunt of the impact.
The physics of this suggests that squirrels are smaller creatures and, therefore, have a slower terminal velocity than humans, so they can handle quite a lot!
While we’re on the topic of movement, another amazing thing to learn is that squirrels can actually swim!
It’s not what they’re designed for, but sometimes when necessary it can be done, and as with all things in the life of squirrels, their tail plays an essential role in steering and staying afloat.
Expressions of Frustration
When we as humans get frustrated, we exhibit certain behaviors.
Some people will stamp their feet, shake their arms or generally exhibit aggressive and angry behavior.
Amazingly, squirrels do a similar sort of thing with their tail!
Here is a YouTube Video where UC Berkeley Research studies a squirrel while frustrated:
As the frustration creeps in, it will twitch its tail more and more. In the video above, you will see squirrels try to successfully open boxes to receive a tasty walnut.
When they can’t open the box or find that it’s empty, they begin to twitch their tails in frustration.
A fun function of the tail is that it can actually cool down a squirrels body.
As squirrels spend time in the heat, their bodies are designed to divert blood to their tails and thus cool off their bodies.
Although some squirrels have longer tails than others, their bodies leave enough blood to assure that there’s enough to keep the rest of their bodily functions running smoothly.
Nobody wants to be overly hot, especially an animal that has to stay in constant movement to avoid predators. Staying cool helps prevent fatigue from the cruel heat of the sun.
Wouldn’t it be nice to have a built in snuggie on your person at all times?
These furry friends of ours have them hanging off the ends of their body!
During the cold winters squirrels don’t exactly hibernate, but these furry creatures do get cold just like the rest of us do that time of year.
They will curl up in a little ball in their homemade bedding and wrap their tails around their body.
On warmer days, squirrels will also sometimes rest on tree limbs.
Obviously, they can’t curl into a ball on a tree limb so they lay down flat, and are able to lay their tails down on their back.
You can find squirrels in trees with their tails lying on their backs or if it’s hot they can be fanned open to the complete opposite direction. It’s really quite adorable.
Fun Squirrel Facts:
Still curious about squirrels? Don’t worry, we’ve compiled a list of some interesting facts about them below.
- Squirrels front teeth never stop growing. Much like beavers, rats, and other rodents. They continue to eat and gnaw on things because it grinds their teeth down. It sounds like a lot of maintenence but it’s better than having enormous teeth.
- Squirrels will make fake nut stashes to lure away thieves. They lose most of their food because they forget where they buried it or because of little squirrel thieves. Sometimes they will make a fake food stash to trick other squirrels out of their pantry.
- Squirrels are in the rodent family of mammals. They have 4 toes on their front feet & 5 on their hinds. They often move in bounding gaits.
- Some species of squirrels primarily live in trees. These are often the ones most people are familiar with because they move along powerlines and fences, often living their entire lives nestled right in urban backyards. Grounds squirrels occupy more desert or prairie environments, often living in large colonies that burrow underground and keep a watchful eye on predators.
- We brought them into our cities. According to a blog piece done by Lex Berko, Squirrels were brought in Central Park and more urban areas to give them a more natural feel. The Squirrels were loved for their furry features and their begging demeanour.
- When squirrels endure cold spells together, their grouping is called a “scurry.” This name comes from their latin name Sciuridae which means “Shade Tail.”
- The average squirrel eats almost a pound of food a week. It doesn’t sound like much until you remember that they eat nuts, insects, and fruit.
- Squirrels steal rattlesnake skin to perfume themselves. Squirrels are a food source for snakes and they avoid the snake predators by rubbing themselves down with snakeskin so they smell like snakes.
- A Squirrel once shutdown NASDAQ for 82 Minutes after hitting the wrong spot on a powerline. Hackers have trouble shutting down wall street but a squirrel once stopped 20 million shares from being traded. Who is the real evil genius here?
- Squirrels can leap for a distance up to 20-feet. And I thought that Michael Jordan’s dunk was spectacular. These little guys certainly aren’t missing leg day.