An Ode to Squirrels: The Badass Rodents Living in Your Backyard

Photo by Simone Mascellari

When a buddy asked if I had seen any of the “Squirrel vs. Rattlesnake” videos on YouTube, I thought he was, um, nuts. The last thing I wanted to watch was some gory video featuring one of my favorite fuzzy friends meeting the worst death I could even imagine. But my friend claimed it wasn’t like that, so I gave it a shot. 

Not only was he absolutely right, but apparently these videos are quite a “thing” on the Internet. Squirrels are apparently not the least bit afraid of rattlesnakes, and naturally far quicker. This, of course, led me to investigate what else I didn’t know about squirrels, and I was truly amazed to find out what backyard badasses they are.

 While there are hundreds of species of squirrels the world over (except in Australia and Antarctica), the squirrel we know is the California ground squirrel. It is found virtually everywhere in NorCal except far eastern Modoc and Lassen Counties. 

Like most people, I knew squirrels were tricky and smart, having seen the highly entertaining Backyard Squirrel Maze 1.0- Ninja Warrior Course on YouTube. I also knew they could climb trees very nimbly, run across telephone wires and never fall, and outsmart the most sophisticated “squirrel-proof” bird feeders every single time.

Some things I didn’t know was they can fall from 100 feet and not get injured. They can jump 20 feet in the air and run 20 miles per hour. Their eyes are positioned so they can see both in front of them and behind them. Adult squirrels are immune to rattlesnake venom. 

California ground squirrels have a unique relationship with two common NorCal snakes, rattlesnakes and gopher snakes. Rattlesnakes’ superpower is they have infrared vision, in other words, they can see heat. They also hunt from ambush, inject their venom, then go after the injured meal and swallow it whole.

When face-to-face with a rattlesnake, squirrels use tail-flagging (flicking their tails back and forth) to signal to the snake that they know they are there. There will be no “ambushing” them. But that’s not all. 

In evolving with rattlesnakes for millions of years, squirrels have also developed the ability to send more blood to their tails in the presence of rattlesnakes. The rattlesnake’s infrared vision picks up the heated tail and is led to believe the squirrel is a much larger creature than it is. Science has shown that squirrels using this “heated tail-flagging technique” are attacked by rattlesnakes much less frequently.   

But let’s say the snake decides to strike anyway. Turns out a lot of squirrels are much faster than the average rattlesnake. They do get bitten once in a while but, as mentioned, adult squirrels are immune to the venom. Rattlesnakes are often found in close proximity with ground squirrel dens, but it’s the baby squirrels the snake wants. Squirrel pups haven’t developed the immunity they will get later in life.

Adult squirrels are so crafty they find and chew rattlesnake skins that have been shed, and then lick the rattlesnake “juice” all over their babies. Making the squirrel pups smell like rattlesnakes confuses the would-be predators and offers even more protection.

Pacific gopher snakes are also common in NorCal and look a great deal like rattlesnakes. Unlike rattlesnakes, gopher snakes are constrictors. They coil around their prey and squeeze it to death before swallowing it whole. Squirrels will use the same tail-flagging technique when face-to-face with gopher snakes, but they do not send blood to heat up their tails. In other words, squirrels can tell the difference between rattlesnakes and gopher snakes. To a squirrel, gopher snakes are a much more dangerous adversary than rattlesnakes, and a lot of squirrels end up gopher snake food.

I remember once watching my cat trying to catch one high up in the big oak tree in our backyard. The cat got the squirrel isolated on one branch and kept creeping closer and closer. The squirrel retreated in kind, deftly keeping just out of the cat’s reach until it looked like it was going to run out of branch. Just when I thought it might be “checkmate” for the squirrel, it made a seemingly effortless ten-foot leap from the end of the branch to the roof of our house, and scampered merrily away. My cat, not the least bit amused, made a face suggesting What just happened?

Here’s hoping you learned something you didn’t know about California ground squirrels, our very own backyard badasses.

Best-selling author James A. Michener wrote a hilarious piece about the real-life battle between retired Army Lt. Col. Bedford Cobb of Texas and a crafty squirrel that defeated nearly every “squirrel-proof” bird feeder on the market. This excerpt is bound to make you laugh:

Care to watch a good Squirrel vs. Rattlesnake video? Give this one a try.

Active NorCal

Telling the Stories of Northern California

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