Squirrels Playing ‘Chicken’ and Other Games

There is no doubt the squirrels are onto us. Humans and our dogs make such interesting playthings, helping them hone their skills and providing amusement at the same time.

Squirrels test people and dogs in much the same way, and know exactly what they’re doing. I watched the squirrel venture out into the street, and pause as it sensed a car coming. Calculating the car’s speed and trajectory, the squirrel then moved exactly into the center of the lane, in the car’s path. As the distance rapidly closed and car brakes screeched, the squirrel squirted sideways and went on its way. If the timing had been off, that squirrel would not have lived to contribute further to the gene pool. It did work, though, and the adventurer lives on to tell the story to its colleagues and children.

Ground squirrels, too, play this game of ‘chicken.’ When we lived in Boulder, Colorado, one of the main bicycle paths wound through a ground squirrel colony. With impeccable timing, the ground squirrels would wait erect by the side of the path, then dash across in front of an oncoming bicyclist. More often than not, it was the cyclist who wound up in a heap beside the path. The ground squirrels were teaching us high-level avoidance techniques.

The ground squirrels that live in the rip-rap along the coastal parks in Northern California are not so daring, choosing instead to stay atop their rocks and chirp warnings at passers-by. Sometimes they double-team the dogs, with sentinel squirrels chirping from different directions. They have learned how long dog leashes are!

Tree squirrels in our neighborhood park are masters of dog-taunting. Streaking across the lawn in full view, with just enough lead to reach a tree first. Then hanging on the trunk of the tree – just above leash level – flicking its tail and chittering at the captured dog. One especially adventurous (suicidal?) squirrel diverted the attention of two Australian shepherds, a border collie, and a pit bull that had been playing frisbee together. All set off in pursuit. As the squirrel neared a tree, it abruptly made a 90-degree turn and headed for another tree farther away. The dogs were in hot pursuit and closing in. Surprisingly fast, the pit bull thundered past the other dogs, missed the squirrel by inches and slammed into the tree. Ouch. The squirrel agreed that one was a bit close, but “did you see that?” it chirped.

Why do the squirrels do this? “Because we can. It’s fun,” one answered. Teasing the dogs is a game that hones their skills and provides entertainment, and the dogs are all too willing to play.

Resting on a high, safe branch, the squirrel chitters down to the dog. The dog, ever hopeful that someday, somehow, the squirrel will be slow or will fall out of the tree, waits. A captive dog.

Question: What games have you watched animals play in the wild?

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"Animals are such agreeable friends - they ask no questions, they pass no criticisms." - George Eliot
"The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated." - Gandhi
"There is little that separates humans from other sentient beings – we all feel pain, we all feel joy, we all deeply crave to be alive and live freely, and we all share this planet together." - attributed to Gandhi
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