Squirrels Taunt Hawks, and Pay the Price

For the past few months, I’ve seen red-tailed hawks almost every day on my walks with Esau in Riverside Park or on the upper boulevard that runs parallel to Riverside Drive.  The bare branches make them easy to spot, and they seem always hungry and on the look-out for prey.

They often choose to perch in spots where they can keep an eye on promising activity both inside the park and along the Drive.

Red-tailed hawk gives me the hairy eyeball.

Sometimes they open their great wings and soar right over your head on their way to a better look-out.

Beautiful.

On the coldest, bitterest days of winter, the park appears almost empty of wildlife. The squirrels are hidden in their leafy nests, curled into their bushy tails for warmth. The songbirds, too, are out of sight, huddled in the warmest spots they can find.

A long walk on a cold day revealed only a couple of sparrows near the Forever Wild bird feeder, puffed up like miniature Michelin men.

Baby, it's cold outside.

Later that day, on the upper path, a juvenile hawk tried unsuccessfully to snatch a pigeon from a small flock that pecked for seeds on the snowy sidewalk.

It must be hard to be a hawk in winter.

But then, just a couple of days ago, the weather suddenly turned bizarrely mild, and the slumbering squirrels erupted into demented, spring-like bouts of foraging and carousing.

Walking on air

It was probably the presence of so many mad crazy squirrels that elevated yesterday to a three-hawk day.

This is how it was.

At the 108th Street staircase, a hawk kept a baleful eye on rioting squirrels, looking a bit like a beleaguered security guard at a rock concert trying not to get riled by a gang of rowdy teens.

One squirrel ran up and down the tree trunk right in front of the hawk.

I can see you.

Once or twice, the twitchy little mammal made its way right out toward the branch where the hawk sat, and even stretched its body toward the bird.  The squirrel would then quiver with excitement for several seconds, as if it had taken a dare, and was trying to get up the courage to actually touch the big bird.

A second squirrel then joined the first, and the two of them played chase just a few feet from the hawk.

Joining in the ruckus

What is it with squirrels? Why provoke an animal capable of catching and devouring you?

I’ve seen this behavior quite often in the park, and am baffled by it. Oh, I understand that squirrels in a tree are probably quite safe, as the hawk must swoop down with force, talons first, to catch and kill.  But being safe doesn’t explain the behavior. What evolutionary benefit can there possibly be for squirrels to get so unnecessarily close to a powerful predator?

Take a look at what we saw just two blocks away, when we resumed our walk.

Yup, that’s a second red-tail with a partly-eaten squirrel. The hawk is uneasy about being watched from above by yet another red-tail.

Third hawk keeps an eye on second hawk’s lunch.

Just a few weeks ago, I posted a story with several close-up shots of a juvenile red-tail lunching on squirrel inside the park.

Yum.

So what in the world is up with the squirrels? Why do they tempt fate?  Why get close to a predator?  How can this behavior possibly serve the squirrel?  Why doesn’t instinct keep them away? Is there such high evolutionary value to curiosity or boldness in squirrels that the trait overcomes a natural fear of being eaten?

Dear Reader, if you know the answer or have a good theory, please leave a comment.

Update March 3, 2011: This post is now part of I and the Bird #145, a birding blog carnival.
Please visit the wonderful British Columbia blog, Island Nature, for links to more bird posts.

Explore posts in the same categories: 2011, Birds, February, Hawks, In the City, NYC Parks, Riverside Park, Squirrels, Wildlife/Natural History, Winter

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21 Comments on “Squirrels Taunt Hawks, and Pay the Price”

  1. Anne Says:

    Visiting today after googling hawk and squirrel as I watch the same scene you described right outside my kitchen window. I can’t tell *what* the hawk is eating (thank goodness), but that silly squirrel keeps running close, RIGHT NEXT to this hawk, quivering the whole while. I hope the hawk isn’t eating the squirrel’s family member. (Do squirrels express grief or protectiveness of their dead?)

  2. Glenda Says:

    I am going to peruse your blog next time I head down to NYC – what a wonderfully descriptive writing style you have! I live near downtown Montreal (Canada) and though I haven’t seen hawks around my backyard, I do notice squirrels taunting feral cats, getting almost close enough for the feline to go in for the kill, sometimes even turning their backs to the cats as they munch some sunflower seeds fallen from the bird feeder. In the Montreal Biodome, which features 4 different ecosystems, a long-legged bird (name I don’t remember), regularly teases a caiman. The guide told us she often sees the bird sneaking up as close as it can to the caiman, which could easily eat the bird for a snack. It will hop away a few feet, then try again. Tempting fate? I have no clue. But after reading your blog, I am going to be more alert when it comes to urban predatory/teasing animal behavior.


  3. [...] Birds and squirrels can often be quite bold with a perched hawk. I’ve seen squirrels seem to taunt a perched hawk, and the sight of crows or jays mobbing a hawk is fairly common. In rural areas, Red-tailed hawks [...]

  4. Elias Krell Says:

    Is play so devalued by human adults that we can’t imagine an evolutionary reason for it?


    • Hi Ellas, thanks so much for visiting Out Walking the Dog. I value play highly, and clearly young squirrels do “play chase,” a behavior that may serve as practice for their crazy mating season (males chase females at full tilt through the trees) as well as, obviously, to avoid predators. Play is, of course, also enjoyable in and of itself. But attempting to play with your primary predators (hawks regularly eat squirrels in NYC) would seem to be evolutionarily counter-productive. Most of the time squirrels run to cover or freeze in place when hawks are nearby. So this kind of behavior absolutely fascinates me! Hope you’ll stop by again.

  5. CGJ Says:

    Wow! What a beautiful behavior capture! I have been racking my brain trying to explain why they would do that. I’ve got nothing. Unexplained, irrational behavior, maybe?

  6. ken Says:

    my hypothesis is that the squirrel is trying to get his predators to waste energy chasing him when he knows he is safe. this would make evolutionary sense if he had access to more energy than his predators or didn’t use as much

  7. Leigh Says:

    I read somewhere that squirrels are adrenaline junkies and are addicted to the rush of chemicals in their bodies from tempting fate.

  8. p hoey Says:

    Maybe the hawk had just finished a nice squirrel lunch…? A wonderful blog and whatever the reason, you do have to admire those bushy lil thrill-seekers! Photos are terrific.

  9. Bill Says:

    Squirrels are not known for their great intelligence, their survival scheme, much like other rodents, is a busy breeding cycle-very prolific.

    Still, this tempting fate isn’t what it appears. As you point out the squirrel is relatively safe in close quarters. He can out maneuver the hawk in this environment, and may just get a kick out of annoying it. On the other hand the last laugh usually goes to the predator. When you least expect it…..

    Great post and wonderful, animated, photos.

  10. John Says:

    Well, if making daffy decisions were all it takes to doom a species to extinction, I can think of one particular mammal that would have been out of the picture millenia ago. Of course evolution is an ever-unfolding process. Maybe what we’re seeing is the step right before the point (say, in 1,000 years) when that first squirrel actually sprouts fangs and HURLS itself at the unsuspecting hawk.

  11. mthew Says:

    I’ve seen this a lot, too. Perhaps the squirrels only see/understand the spread-wing version of the bird above them, not the hawk perched on a branch. Or perhaps, their (species) success is based on taking chances.

  12. Kurt Mantooth Says:

    What a treat to return to your blog!


  13. Amazing series of pictures! What a wildlife documentary!

    It’s always struck me that squirrels’ eyesight isn’t very good… but maybe I’m wrong.

    Our garden grey squirrels usually manage to elude the local cats, but we don’t have your wonderful aerial raptors here.

    I look out with interest for any updates from you on squirrel psychology!

    All the best
    x

  14. Charlotte Says:

    Fantastic photos Melissa. They open the whole world of the park and its inhabitants to us. And love what Daddy-o postulates. He could be onto something.

  15. daddy0 Says:

    Maybe self sacrifice is built in just a survival is It would help to maintain a diversity of species. It may explain some of the more idiotic political activities we observe.


  16. This is a great post and these are some amazing photos from outside our backdoor, wow.
    Unfortunately, I don’t know why the squirrel would do this. I’m going to try and enlist the help of a science teacher friend. I’ll keep you posted.
    Thank you


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