Squirrels can tell one cat from another

We have a large number of eastern grey squirrels in our neighbourhood.  They are an invasive species, so I suppose I shouldn’t like them, but I enjoy their antics – they play little games with one another, bicker like children, and perform astonishing aerial stunts in the treetops.  Just recently, however, we have observed that they are also astonishingly bright.

These two squirrels are chasing one another through a garry oak in our yard. These are both the dark form of the eastern grey squirrel. We actually have a wide range of colours including the basic grey, shades of brown including chocolate brown with reddish bellies, black with red tail or underbelly, and some of the grey ones have patches of red. It makes it easy to identify individuals.

We have a cat called Sky (for the blue colour of his eyes) – he is a 9-year-old Siamese cross (his colouring is chocolate-point Siamese) who was raised in an apartment, so he views outdoors rather like his summer cabin – a place to visit when the weather is suitable, but not really part of his “home”. 

In fine weather Sky goes out, rolls around on the wood-chipping paths, lays under shrubs, and generally observes what’s going on around.  He seems to have some idea that birds are prey, but it is a rather remote idea, and a bird has to come really close for him to even consider chasing it.  Otherwise, when he is feeling energetic, he will stare at birds, lashing his tail and vocalizing in a distinctive way.  Not good for sneaking up on them.

Squirrels are different.  Sky seems to feel that they should be playmates – but they aren’t really cooperative.  Mostly he just watches, but occasionally he will gallop playfully towards one and follows until it goes up a tree. There is also a neighbourhood cat who visits as often as it can manage – that is, when we don’t see it and chase it off with the hose or just plain yelling and stomping.  This tortoiseshell cat IS a hunter, and can climb trees very well – so well that I have seen it 20 feet up a tree, and worried that it would fall and seriously hurt itself.  This cat is a genuine hazard to both squirrels and birds, which is why we chase it off.  The interesting thing is that the resident squirrels can tell Sky apart from the neighbour’s cat.  Their reaction to the two cats is clearly different.  The moment the neighbour’s cat is spotted, the squirrels race up the nearest tree, chattering loudly and lashing their tails frantically.  If we are home, we hear the fuss and go out and chase the cat away.

The circle marks where the neighbour's cat got to one day while chasing a squirrel

If Sky goes outside, however, squirrels look up from what they are doing, move a little if they are too close, and go back to what they were doing. 

Recently, my husband observed Sky sitting on the garden path watching a squirrel that was digging around under the birdfeeder for something to eat – about two feet away.  The squirrel could hardly be unaware of Sky, but even went so far as to turn its back on him.

You can see Sky sitting on the left and the squirrel rummaging around on the right.

Another day, there was a (different) squirrel nibbling on one of the corn logs we put out for them, and Sky was sitting in the garden about three feet away, pretty much ignoring the squirrel.  Sky got bored and decided to leap up and “attack” a nearby fir cone.  The squirrel, being startled, jumped into the nearest bush.  Sky sat down again, and the squirrel was back within 20 seconds — obviously not worried!

On the occasion that Sky decides to “play” and gallops after a squirrel, it goes high enough to be unreachable and sits there  — usually no sound, sometimes some tail lashing, but no apparent upset past annoyance at being disturbed.  Sky goes and finds something else to do – squirrels just don’t play well!

Before this I would never have thought that squirrels were smart enough to tell the difference between two cats and behave differently on that recognition.


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