Do Squirrels Remember Humans?

And should you bond with your backyard squirrels?

Squirrel shaking hands with a person

Ioannis Tsotras / Getty Images

Squirrels recognize humans they see as a source of food — specifically, the humans who have offered squirrel feed or nuts in the past. These intelligent rodents do indeed have excellent memories, and because humans have encroached on their habitats, squirrels have become accustomed to human behavior. In fact, squirrels are typically less afraid of human beings than they are of other animals.

Squirrels not only recognize human beings; they also can be trained to come for food when it's offered consistently. However, that doesn't mean you should offer food consistently. Squirrels are still unpredictable animals with surprising strength and speed, and their sharp claws and natural behaviors make them poor companions to humans.

How Good Is a Squirrel's Memory?

Quite a few researchers have been surprised by what squirrels can accomplish. These rodents actually use a fairly complex "language" with one another, which includes multiple sounds that express a range of ideas.

At the University of Exeter, scientists engaged gray squirrels in solving a tricky problem in order to find a tasty hazelnut. Almost two years later, the squirrels remembered how to solve the problem, and could make it through a maze in record time. In other words, the squirrels could not only solve the problem but also remember the solution after 22 months.

In addition to a great memory, squirrels are clever enough to deceive other squirrels and foragers that might be after their food. One study found that squirrels who are worried about animals stealing their food will actually pretend to dig and hide their nuts — and then, later, actually hide their nuts in private. They then remember (for the most part) where to find their nuts at a later date.

Along with locating the nuts they buried, squirrels organize their stored food into "chunks." In other words, a squirrel will bury acorns in one spot, hazelnuts in another spot, and so on. This technique, called scatter-hoarding, takes a lot of brainpower between organizing, hoarding, and recalling the location of the buried food.

Squirrels' intelligence and memory make it easy for them to determine whether human beings are friends or foes, and to remember what they've learned about their environment.

Squirrel Behavior With Humans

Squirrels rarely come up to people to engage with them, but in urban areas, they have warmed up to the understanding that humans are not usually threatening. According to one study, squirrels take note of whether their human neighbors are on a footpath or not, and respond accordingly. When humans were on the footpath, the squirrels ignored them, but when the humans turned and looked at the squirrels and started to approach them the squirrels quickly ran away.

There are several documented cases in which orphaned squirrels have been raised by humans and then, in most cases, released into the wild. While squirrels born in the wild may not be particularly friendly, they do seem to remember their human hosts. In some cases, they even return to reconnect with their human saviors.

Squirrels are also more than willing to return to a food source over and over again. And they're famously willing to do whatever it takes to get to an ordinary food source, like a bird feeder.

Should Humans Feed Squirrels?

Wildlife experts and lovers alike are often torn by this question. In general, the answer is no, you should avoid feeding squirrels — or, at least keep the feeding to a minimum.

There are a number of reasons to refrain from becoming a food source for these rodents. First, food from humans ("people" food) may not provide sufficient nutrition for squirrels. Also, thanks to their impressive memory, squirrels may become too trustworthy and therefore dependent on people who, later, stop putting out food; in this scenario, squirrels will have a hard time readjusting and feeding themselves again.

Being wild animals, squirrels always pose a risk of biting or scratching humans, even inadvertently, and especially if they become too comfortable and grab food from their hosts. Another risk is squirrels, like all wild rodents, can carry diseases that can be harmful to humans and pets. And feeders — although effective in protecting humans from direct contact with squirrels — can potentially make squirrels more vulnerable to dangers, such as cats and cars, if they are placed too close to the house.

Despite this list, curious animal lovers still try their luck at providing food for wildlife. If you do feed squirrels (against our better judgement), only put out uncooked, unsalted nuts and shredded vegetables, and never feed by hand.

Finally, if you find a baby squirrel in a nest, leave it alone — its mother is probably away searching for food. If a parent does not return, alert your local wildlife center. Do not attempt to turn baby squirrels into pets — no matter how cute they are.

View Article Sources
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