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.


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.


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

  1. Kim Says:

    A hawk just like this crashed into my kitchen window with a squirrel in his mouth this morning. He was able to right himself and fly away ! I happened to be at the window ! BOOM when i looked up the type of hawk i came across your post ! .

  2. Kim Says:

    There is a squirrel that pelts me with acorns when i get home from work in the morning. Every year around the same time. They must have quite a sense of humor and mischief! I see him aiming at me from his tree branch !

  3. Natasha Says:

    Just saw a hawk fly pass my sister car as we drove by with a squirrel in its. Mouth and came across this story. Wow

  4. […] RTHA at Out Walking the Dog […]

  5. Edward Cole Says:

    Squirrel usually leave snakes alone, but a mother Squirrel will drive a snake away or kill it if she has babies to protect. How old are the squirrels that taunting hawks could they sometimes be trying to drive the hawk away? Do squirrels ever get the best of a hawk?
    My reason for concern is that there is a young squirrel that comes and visits me and I give here nuts. I have just lately in the early morning seen a hawk siting on the railing of the porch and I would like to find a way to tell the hawk it is not wanted on my porch, but I do not like the thought that this may be bad for some other little animals who are elseward. I also saw some bird may be a hawk (it seemed smaller than I thought a hawk would look when flying) fly thought the tree next to the porch without stopping, perhaps it got a small bird. There are squires in this tree.

  6. Kenny Says:

    their are many types of birds that will swoop down between the wheels of cars to impress a mate, which is believed ot be why more birds have shorter wingspans now, only the ones with the shorter wings made it through to mate. it might be something similar, a test of bravery might be the squirrels way of attracting a mate. or, alternatively, squirrels are just dumb.

  7. Bird Lady Says:

    I had just come across the exact same thing in my yard in Northern Queens. We feed all the songbirds all winter long which is a joy but that brings the Hawks to my yard to dine. Most every time our Hawks will choose pigeon. At first the hawk was jumpy and would fly away if we even passed inside the house near a window but soon became relaxed with us at the windows. They have favorite branches and come to eat daily. But the squirrels have been doing just what the ones you described. I was shocked watching this squirrel taunt the hawk in the tree. Sitting almost right next to hawk a staring contest going on between them. The hawk was not happy bristling twitching his feathers. The squirrel then slowly scampered off up the tree to hight branches. I can only think of the famous line …do you feel lucky punk?
    So unless years of evolution had them know somehow they were safe in the tree…. I don’t know but it’s going on around NYC boroughs. Maybe just nyc squirrels are that bad a$$ or that…crazy!

  8. Lester shylock Says:

    My guess , probably young squirrels who won’t be around long enough to pass this idiotic behavior on to any offspring. Thanks for the info, much appreciated. I can always tell when a hawk is nearby, my bird feeders are empty, no sign of birds. The squirrels on the other hand seem unfazed.

    • Ha – that’s an amusing take on the situation, that these squirrles won;t survive long enough to pass on their behavior. Interesting that your squirrels are unfazed by the hawks. Here I often see them freeze and make alarm calls.

    • Bird Lady Says:

      Same thing here the happy loud chattering the flurry of so many birds in my yard going from feeder to feeder for a bit of this a bit of that. All the birds get along very well. This year even the Blue Jays were not doing their usual bully act. If have the Jays the wood peckers the red wings and so many others all getting along and sharing. But then out of the blue you can hear a pine needle drop! Sure enough our big guy is on his branch and he will sit there as long as it takes for a poor pigeon to come late to the party all happy he has the food to himself and then ….

  9. Linda Says:

    Been observing a couple Red-tails in our park. We have bird feeders attached to our place between a couple windows. Earlier this season we noticed an exponential increase in the squirrel population and wondered how long it would be before one or more dared the new metal roof to gain access. Well, it was about 2 months. We’d see them in the very nearby tree, contemplating for what seemed like hours. Finally, it happened.

    Anyway, 2 days ago we notice a huge Red-tail in a tree farther out in the yard. It swoops fairly close to our place and lands across the street. Since then, squirrels are nowhere to be seen except very early morning. Yesterday, a pair of the Redtails were in the park. No squirrels. AND the other birds that used to frequent the feeder before the advance of squirrel evolution….came in swarms! So interesting to watch…

    Thoroughly enjoy this blog and hope to see more of your writing!!


  10. Eleanor Says:

    I spent a number of years studying squirrels and concluded that they are altruistic – they bury nuts for the community (therefore it doesn’t matter if they remember where a nut is, another squirrel will find it by sense of smell), give warning calls when there is an intruder and perhaps in this case are trying to distract the bird from nesting areas (they do raise babies in the winter) or from others in the community. Did you notice if they made any noises while apparently playing with the hawk?

    Altruistic behaviour traditionally was considered only human, by the way, just as other species were thought not to lie. But I noticed that Blue Jays will give an alarm signal (intruder nearby) and frighten the squirrels in order to get first to the nuts on a table. We are a very self-centred and short-sighted species and so tend to be blind to other species’ fascinating characteristics, especially if it goes against some very old-fashioned ingrained ideas.

    I’m glad you brought this topic up and are trying to see it in a new light.

    • Fascinating. Thank you for your observations, Eleanor. I don’t recall these squirrels making any sounds. On other occasions, I’ve heard squirrels making little alarm “chuck” sounds while frozen in place to avoid being spotted by a hawk overhead.

  11. faizan Says:

    squirrels have high adrenaline shocks and stuff this give them adrenaline shock and make them do what they do not want to or it gives them courage to do so an this also what makes them run fast when chased.

  12. 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?)

  13. 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.

  14. […] 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 […]

  15. 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.

  16. 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?

  17. 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

  18. Leigh Says:

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

  19. 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.

  20. 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.

  21. 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.

  22. 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.

  23. Kurt Mantooth Says:

    What a treat to return to your blog!

  24. 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

  25. 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.

  26. 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.

  27. 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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