By Norman Knight
Nearly all grandparents, it seems, think their grandkids are pretty special. They tell themselves their perfect little gems are scholarly, athletic, cute, clever and astonishingly talented in so many areas.
As a grandparent I am no different. Well, except that I recently was presented with proof that my granddaughter is all of the above and more, a veritable wunderkind. You see, my 5-year-old granddaughter Adelaide can make a sound like a squirrel. No, really, she can.
OK, her older siblings think she sounds more like a dolphin, but I live in the woods and I know squirrels when I hear them. They chatter incessantly throughout the day. They make noise when they are happy and they make noise when they are warning other squirrels and for all I know, they are making noise when they steal the apples from my orchard when I am not around.
I suppose an argument could be made that squirrels sound similar to dolphins, but that doesn’t change the fact that squirrels have a pretty distinctive sound — a sound I hear when Adelaide talks like a squirrel.
She makes the sounds from the back of her throat, a series of short, high-pitched clicks. It’s pretty cool. As a matter of fact, I was so impressed I wanted to know more about squirrel talk. I was not a bit surprised to find out much research has been conducted on squirrel vocalization. It reinforces my faith that no area is off limits to humans in their quest to understand.
Scientists tell us squirrels make sounds mostly as an alert that potential predators are nearby. These sounds are divided into three types: kuks, quaas and moans. The kuk is a short, sharp sound.
“Imagine a dog barking and then speed it up and shorten it down to squirrel-size,” says University of Miami researcher Thaddeus McRae.
A quaa is a longer version of the kuk and can vary in length. In contrast to kuks and quaas, the moan is more like a tone, similar to a whistle. I would say Adelaide is doing kuks when she is making squirrel sounds. Perhaps in the future she will expand her repertoire to include quaas and moans. True artists are constantly exploring new directions.
In addition to these vocalizations, squirrels use two tails signals, the twitch and the flag, as visual alarms. The twitch is a slow wave while the flag is a more pronounced whipping motion. Researcher McRae and his colleagues discovered there is a tendency to use certain combinations of vocal and visual alarms depending on the type of threat. Aerial threats such as hawks will evoke moans while terrestrial threats like cats will mostly produce tail flags.
Kuks are often sounded when there is no clear specific threat. Makes me wonder if the squirrels are just chattering to make noise — sort of like sounds Adelaide makes when she is playing by herself.
I think one of the toughest parts of being a scientist who studies animal vocalizations is coming up with a way to write the sounds down. I’ve seen examples of animal sounds as they are notated in different languages and sometimes they are a puzzle to me. Then again, sometimes the way we English speakers write animal sounds doesn’t make much sense to me. For example, even as a kid, I didn’t buy the concept that “cock-a-doodle-do” was the sound of a rooster rowing. At least “kuk” is close to the sound I’ve heard a squirrel — and Adelaide — make.
Maybe Adelaide will grow up to be a scientist specializing in animal vocalizations. I am convinced she has the ability to accomplish whatever she chooses to do. I believe in her. I’d be nuts not to.
Norman Knight, a retired Clark-Pleasant Middle School teacher, writes this weekly column for the Daily Journal. Send comments to email@example.com.