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What Squirrels Can Teach Us About Being Human

With a Ph.D. in psychology and a passion for animals, FlourishAnyway knows animals can teach us more about living healthy, fulfilling lives.

Advice from Your Favorite Rodent Friend: He's Here to Help

Feeling a little squirrelly lately?  Going a little nuts?  These charming backyard critters have lessons to teach us about how to live our best lives.

Feeling a little squirrelly lately? Going a little nuts? These charming backyard critters have lessons to teach us about how to live our best lives.

If You Can't Beat Them, Then Join Them

Squirrels are tree huggers, aerial acrobats, and infamous hoarders. They are also the proverbial uninvited guests to the dinner party.

When it comes to squirrels, you're either with them or against them. It seems that there's no middle ground where they are concerned.

You've either relented—like me—and started buying them peanuts, or placed them in a stew for dinner. (Say it ain't so.)

Regardless of how you feel about these bushy-tailed rodents, there are lessons they can teach us on how to lead our best lives.

Embrace the struggle.  Squirrels are as adaptable as they are cute.

Embrace the struggle. Squirrels are as adaptable as they are cute.

Lesson 1: Adapt to Change

There are 285 species of squirrels worldwide, and they live in habitats ranging from South America's tropical rain forests to Africa's semiarid deserts to areas much more temperate, such as Europe and North America.1

Squirrels are remarkably adaptable. They can be found in city parks and rural settings alike as well as in trees, on the ground, and perhaps even in your attic or crawl space. (Uh oh.)

So how adaptable are you?

If you don't have a cell phone yet, still rely chiefly on paper maps and the phone book, and your hairstyle is the same as you had in high school, then maybe it's time to get squirrelly.

"Times change and you have to adapt."

— Jerry Cantrell, American guitarist

Phone Books: Remember These?

Try a little adaptation if you rely mostly on paper maps and phone books.

Try a little adaptation if you rely mostly on paper maps and phone books.

Lesson 2: Early to Bed, Early to Rise ...

Squirrels have perfected the art of rising early, and maybe we should take heed. These bright-eyed, bushy-tailed rodents differ from most of their nocturnal cousins in that they become most productive several hours after sunrise.

During the summer, they take a siesta in the afternoon, only to resume their activities approximately two hours prior to sunset.

During winter, squirrels finish their activities before the middle of the day, retiring to the nest early. Squirrels rarely leave the nest after nightfall.

This Guy Has Life Figured Out

Squirrels are adaptable and live in many areas: trees, city parks, the ground.

Squirrels are adaptable and live in many areas: trees, city parks, the ground.

Benefits of Being an Early Riser

Humans who are early risers tend to experience the following benefits, compared with their night-owl counterparts. They tend to

  • be generally healthier2
  • feel happier, more alert, and awake
  • report greater life satisfaction
  • have a lower body mass index, eat less fast food, lose weight more easily3
  • enjoy better quality sleep and
  • have higher grades in school.4

Although early risers tend to be less creative, intelligent and extroverted than night owls—you can't win them all—the 9-to-5 schedule of the corporate world favors their natural body rhythms.

As a result, early risers don't experience the "social jet lag" that night-owls do—the feeling of being constantly out of sync with social expectations of when someone "should" be sleeping.

So whada-ya say? Time to reset that internal clock of yours?

Not a Morning Person? Tips for Becoming More Productive

Let's face it: not everyone is an early riser like squirrels. If you are a night owl, here are some tips for becoming more productive on the job.

  • The night before, make a "to do" list of what you need to accomplish.
  • Get enough good quality sleep.
  • Practice a relaxing morning ritual.
  • Exercise. It releases endorphins, the body's natural "feel good" drug.
  • Eat a nutritious breakfast.
  • Try to avoid early morning meetings.
  • Schedule your most important work for when you are your most productive.

"Num, Num, Num ..."

Squirrel teeth never stop growing, so they sharpen them on whatever is available. Dried corn on the cob is a favorite treat.

Squirrel teeth never stop growing, so they sharpen them on whatever is available. Dried corn on the cob is a favorite treat.

Reader Opinion Poll

Lesson 3: Take Time to Chew Things Over

Squirrels have 20-22 teeth, and they never stop growing. In fact, their teeth grow as much as 1/16 of an inch (0.16 cm) daily.5

To prevent their teeth from growing into their skulls, squirrels must continually chew on tree branches and nut hulls. Because the quality of their lives depend on it, squirrels dedicate the time they need to the process of chewing. For them, it's an art as well as a necessity.

The pesky critters are deliberative and steady in their gnawing habits, and they will chew on nearly anything—roof shingles, garden hoses, bird feeders, you name it.

But before you curse the little munchers, listen up. Squirrel methodology provides a lesson when considering how we humans process information and make decisions.

Squirrels must continually chew on tree branches, nuts hulls and other objects to wear down their teeth because they never stop growing.

Squirrels must continually chew on tree branches, nuts hulls and other objects to wear down their teeth because they never stop growing.

Are You an Information Gulper or Chewer?

Do you gulp down information and spit out your decisions, or do you chew on it?

In the book Decisive: How To Make Better Choices In Life and Work, psychologists Chip Heath and Dan Heath describe common decision-making errors as well as solutions for counteracting these errors.

Take time to chew on information.  Be more like a squirrel.

Take time to chew on information. Be more like a squirrel.

Chew, Don't Gulp, Your Information: How to Make Better Choices

Common Decision Making ErrorSolution

Forcing an either/or decision when it is not necessary

Widen your options

Seeking data that only supports your viewpoint (confirmation bias)

Reality test your assumptions

Removing emotion from the decision making process

Achieve distance before deciding

Being overconfident in your decision making, thus limiting your ability to consider alternatives

Prepare to be wrong

Squirrels Find Tulip Bulbs Yummy

Squirrels often find tulip, daffodil, and other flower bulbs irresistible.  Everyone has to eat.

Squirrels often find tulip, daffodil, and other flower bulbs irresistible. Everyone has to eat.

Key Take Away on Making Better Decisions

Great decision making all comes down to behaving more like a squirrel:

  • chew on information
  • churn ideas over
  • try different options out.

Don't just chew on nuts and trees, the tried and true answer. Get experimental by gnawing on the deck, a garden statue, or a plastic flower pot. Go a little nuts. You might discover something fantastic, like next spring's daffodil bulbs the home owners have just planted.

Also chatter with others about what they think. (Two minds are better than one. A squirrel brain is, after all, the size of a walnut.)

And, of course, remember that if things go badly, you might wind up in someone's stew.

"You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation."

— Plato, Greek philosopher, mathematician

Get Squirrelly: Chew on Your Decisions a Little More

Got a decision to make?  Chew on it.  Generate some options.  Talk to friends. We're so worried about being decisive that we commit common decision making errors.

Got a decision to make? Chew on it. Generate some options. Talk to friends. We're so worried about being decisive that we commit common decision making errors.

Lesson 4: Play Cements Your Relationships

Squirrels often scamper around and give chase to one another, up and down trees, jumping from limb to limb, and rolling about. But what do all their antics mean?

It's all about relationships, and the intent of their chasing depends on the age and sex of the squirrels involved.6 For example, young squirrels often "play fight" to develop coordination, strength and to simply have fun.

Older squirrels spiral down a tree trunk after one another. They engage in chasing to maintain dominance hierarchies, sometimes settling territorial disputes this way. Males will also chase females as part of a mating ritual.

Wanna play?

Wanna play?

Play Like You Mean It

For humans, play is an integral part of our development. Research demonstrates that play promotes belonging, social awareness, cooperation, fairness, and altruism.7

Children who grow up without sufficient exposure to play opportunities may experience abnormal neurological development and difficulties in restraining violent tendencies.8 Adults who are all work and no play are often rigid, humorless, and overly vulnerable to stress.

Play gives us a chance to try new ideas, thus sparking both creativity and innovation. It fosters learning and innovative problem solving.

Play is not simply the opposite of work. It is how we connect with others and enrich our lives.

So there—if you needed reasons to play, now you have them. Goofing off never sounded so good!

Psst. Hey, You! What's Your Back up Plan?

Thanks to resourceful planning, this squirrel has built a main nest and one or more back-up nests.  He has planned for emergencies.  Do you have a Plan B?

Thanks to resourceful planning, this squirrel has built a main nest and one or more back-up nests. He has planned for emergencies. Do you have a Plan B?

Lesson 5: Always Have a Back up Plan

If you needed to move out of your home today, would you have another place to go? Squirrels do, thanks to their resourceful planning.

Squirrels often have multiple dwellings, building dens in tree cavities as well as leaf nests high in hardwood trees.9 They sometimes also take emergency shelter in ground holes.

Their leaf nests, called "dreys," are typically 20 feet or more off the ground and are positioned on a strong limb. Constructed of interwoven twigs, leaves, vines, and moss, the structures are sturdier than they appear while also having a soft lining of grass to cradle baby squirrels.

These cute baby squirrels look cozy but do they have an escape hatch?

These cute baby squirrels look cozy but do they have an escape hatch?

Escape Hatches and Back up Plans: Be Ready in a Pinch

Squirrel nests also have one clever design feature: a hidden escape hatch covered with leaves. Escape hatches are extremely useful things to have in life. Remember that.

Whether it's a souring relationship, financial problems, a job that has left you burned out or one where there's a bully, escape hatches help you cope with life's emergencies.

Take a lesson from squirrels. They often build second and even third homes near food sources and relocate to their back-up dwellings when they need to escape the threat of predators, fleas, or to be closer to food.

Perhaps we humans should think more like squirrels and have back-up plans for life emergencies we could face. Think about how you can build back-up plans and escape hatches into your life. How prepared are you? What steps do you need to take?

Work It, Baby, Work It! Swish That Tail

There are 285 species of squirrels worldwide, and they come in a variety of colors:  grey, tawny brown, black, and reddish.  Squirrels are active, alert, and inquisitive.

There are 285 species of squirrels worldwide, and they come in a variety of colors: grey, tawny brown, black, and reddish. Squirrels are active, alert, and inquisitive.

Lesson 6: Accentuate Your Best Features

Squirrels are the cleanest members of the rodent family. Have you ever seen squirrels grooming their thick, bushy tails? It's their best feature, and they need to keep them gorgeous. Those tails are also very useful, however.

Reader Poll:

Cold Weather? Bring It!

This squirrel uses his versatile, bushy tail to shield himself from inclement weather.

This squirrel uses his versatile, bushy tail to shield himself from inclement weather.

A squirrel's tail is often the length of the rest of their bodies, and it serves three important functions.10

  1. It provides them important protection from the elements. For examples, squirrels use their tails as umbrellas to shelter them from inclement weather, and they wrap their tails around them to stay warm. (The word "squirrel" originates from two Greek words, skia, meaning "shadow," and oura, meaning "tail.")
  2. Squirrels also use their tails to as communication devices to warn away predators (called "tail flagging") or to signal to other squirrels. For example, three quick flicks of the tail alert other squirrels to nearby danger.
  3. Finally, their tails serve several important functions with respect to movement: as a counterbalance while they rest on branches, as a rudder when they jump between limbs, and as a parachute to slow their fall.

No Shame in This Squirrel's Game

If you have great assets, flaunt them.

If you have great assets, flaunt them.

Flaunt Your Assets: Ain't No Shame in Your Game

So do you know what your best feature is? Accentuating it can boost your self-confidence.

In the workplace, people who ooze confidence are often promoted over those who are equally talented but less confident.11 Research suggests that confidence is interesting to others, and we tend to provide confident people the higher social status they seek.

So figure out what your greatest asset is and flaunt it. Go ahead. Swish that squirrelly tail of yours. Ain't no shame in that game as long as you can back it up.

"Aww, Nuts! I Didn't Save Enough for My Future!"

Don't be this guy.  He failed to save enough for his future.

Don't be this guy. He failed to save enough for his future.

Lesson 7: Save for the Future

Squirrels know they will face bleak periods when food is scarce—particularly in early spring. It is not uncommon for squirrels to die of starvation before their first birthday. The smart squirrel, however, saves mightily for his future.

He breaks the nutshell with his teeth and cleans it by licking or rubbing it on his face. This activity applies his scent to the nut, marking it as "MINE." This helps him to find his buried treasure months later, even under a foot of snow.

The smart squirrel saves for his future.

The smart squirrel saves for his future.

Are You Squirreling Away Enough for Retirement?

We humans should learn a lesson from our forest friends by squirreling away enough for our own retirement.

With longer life spans, rising health care costs, and a greater responsibility for individuals to provide our own retirement security, it is important for each of us to save, save, save.

For years, the retirement savings target was $1 million per person. However, now the average worker needs 11 times his or her final annual salary (beyond Social Security payments) to retire at 65.12 Want to retire at 62? That will be 13.5 times your final annual salary.

Squirrel away your savings and protect those nuts. (You do remember where you buried them, don't you?) Practice frugal living. Kick junior out of the nest (or at least make him pay rent). You don't want to be a working squirrel forever, do you?

Reader Poll

Squirrels: What's Not to Love?

Okay, so they take more than their fair share from your bird feeder, take up residence in your attic, and chew up your flower bulbs before they can even bloom.  But they sure are CUTE!

Okay, so they take more than their fair share from your bird feeder, take up residence in your attic, and chew up your flower bulbs before they can even bloom. But they sure are CUTE!

Lesson 8: Not Everybody Is Gonna Love You

Squirrels know they're not perfect. They understand that they have their shortcomings.

Sure, they've been known to take more than their fair share at the bird feeders. But don't tell me you've never taken second helpings—or even thirds—at Thanksgiving dinner.

They would also admit that finding the spring daffodil bulbs you just planted is like winning the jackpot. Bulbs are their favorite menu items. If you were hungry and found a bunch of steak and lobster, wouldn't you dig right in? (Yep, thought so.)

Squirrels even acknowledge setting up shop in your attic uninvited. However, before you complain, just consider this: would you want to live outside if you could live rent-free in the comfort of someone else's home? By leaving access points open, didn't you really just hand them the key?

Squirrels are a lowly rodent to some people, but to admirers they are high flying acrobats, fuzzy tailed philosophers, scampering tree huggers, and resourceful survivors. They are also awfully cute.

Squirrels have learned that not everybody is gonna love you, so you have to love yourself. Seek out the yards of those who welcome your company. Learn to appreciate your flaws as an integral part of you, then get on with the business of living.

Get What's Coming to You

Squirrels can go to great lengths to get what's coming to them.  You have to admire their tenacity and acrobatics.  Don't be a hater.

Squirrels can go to great lengths to get what's coming to them. You have to admire their tenacity and acrobatics. Don't be a hater.

Notes

1Wikipedia. "Squirrel." Last modified August 7, 2013. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Squirrel.

2Hough, Andrew. "Why the 'early bird' is happier and healthier in life." Telegraph.co.uk. Last modified June 13, 2012. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/health/healthnews/9327244/Why-the-early-bird-is-happier-and-healthier-in-life.html.

3NY Daily News. "Early risers may be thinner, happier, less likely to be depressed, stressed and overweight." Last modified September 21, 2011. http://www.nydailynews.com/life-style/health/early-risers-thinner-happier-depressed-stressed-overweight-article-1.956389.

4Laino, C. (2008, June 9). Early Birds Get Better Grades. Retrieved from https://www.webmd.com/sleep-disorders/news/20080609/early-birds-get-better-grades#1.

Oh, Come On! Give a Guy a Break!

Everyone has to eat.  Go ahead and help that squirrel out. It is not uncommon for squirrels to die of starvation before their first birthday.  This guy looks plenty safe.

Everyone has to eat. Go ahead and help that squirrel out. It is not uncommon for squirrels to die of starvation before their first birthday. This guy looks plenty safe.

5Squirrel Refuge. "Malocclusion." Accessed September 12, 2013. http://squirrelrefuge.org.

6Melina, Remy. "Why Do Squirrels Chase Each Other? | LiveScience." LiveScience.com. Last modified August 2, 2010. http://www.livescience.com/32740-why-do-squirrels-chase-each-other-.html.

7National Institute For Play. "Pattern of Play." Last modified 2014. http://www.nifplay.org/science/pattern-play/.

Squirrels: Full of Life Lessons

Squirrels have many life lessons to teach humans -- if we pay attention.

Squirrels have many life lessons to teach humans -- if we pay attention.

9Whitebread, David, Marisol Basilio, Martina Kuvalja, and Mohini Verma. "The Importance of Play: Taking play seriously." Last modified April, 2012. http://www.importanceofplay.eu/IMG/pdf/dr_david_whitebread_-_the_importance_of_play.pdf.

10Shomo, Art. "West Virginia Wildlife Magazine." West Virginia Division of Natural Resources. Accessed September 13, 2013. http://www.wvdnr.gov/wildlife/magazine/archive/04winter/clumps_of_leaves.shtm.

11H, Dan. "The News For Squirrels: The Amazing Spectacular Squirrel Tail." The News For Squirrels. Last modified May 6, 2012. http://newsforsquirrels.blogspot.com/2012/05/amazing-spectacular-squirrel-tail.html.

12Ziegler, Maseena. "The Kim Kardashian Effect - Why Being Overly Confident Pays Off." Forbes. Last modified August 14, 2012. http://www.forbes.com/sites/crossingborders/2012/08/14/the-kim-kardashian-effect-why-being-overly-confident-pays-off/.

13Kadlec, Dan. "Retirement Savings: 11 Times Final Pay is the New Target." TIME. Last modified July 17, 2012. http://business.time.com/2012/07/17/retirement-savings-11-times-final-pay-is-the-new-target/.

14Nature Gift Store Company. "What Do Squirrels Eat?" Accessed September 15, 2013. http://www.about-squirrels.com/what-do-squirrels-eat.html.

Questions & Answers

Question: How many teeth do squirrels have?

Answer: There are over 200 different species of squirrels so there is no "average" type of squirrel. However, adult squirrels typically have 20-22 teeth, including 4 front teeth or incisors (2 on the top, 2 on the bottom) that grow about 6 inches a year and never stop. They need to chew on wood and other objects to keep their teeth filed down so their front teeth don't grow into their skull. Fortunately, their molars and pre-molars do not continuously grow. Here are two squirrel resources if you want to read more about their teeth: https://www.twrcwildlifecenter.org/squirrels/ and http://squirrelrefuge.org/teethissues.html.

Question: If you give squirrels peanuts where do they bury them? In your yard or somewhere else?

Answer: What you're really asking about is the size of the squirrel's territory and home range, as squirrels typically don't venture outside of this area. A territory in an area that a squirrel will actively defend and a home range is a broader area that a squirrel travels in. The size of a squirrel's home area depends on the specific species of squirrel and whether the squirrel is male or female (with males venturing further). According to a research study in The Journal of Wildlife Management (cited below), the Easter Gray Squirrel, which is common in the eastern and midwestern United States, has an average minimum home range of 1.2 acres. If the squirrels are not immediately eating the peanuts you are feeding them, then they are burying them somewhere in their home range.

Doebel, J. H., & McGinnes, B. S. (1974). Home Range and Activity of a Gray Squirrel Population. The Journal of Wildlife Management, 38(4), 860. doi:10.2307/3800057

© 2013 FlourishAnyway

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