Do Squirrels Play Dead or Stay Still? How they Evade Predators (Video: Hiding from Hawk)

Depending on where you are in the food chain, you may have evolved to have very special skills that help keep you alive.

Playing dead is definitely one such skill that has, no doubt, saved countless lives.

We all know opossums can play dead, and I’ve also personally witnessed it with baby bunnies and snakes.

But can squirrels do it?   Let’s find out the answer and then we’ll get into how our squirrel buddies evade their constant, daily threats.

Do Squirrels Play Dead?

Instead of playing dead, which means on your back or side with eyes closed, squirrels will freeze like a mannequin.   A squirrel in a predators field of vision can stay perfectly still as long as necessary, to avoid being spotted or chased.

squirrel plays dead on concrete

How long?  I filmed a squirrel staying still for at least 5 minutes.  There was a hawk in the tree above him and I think he made the right choice to freeze in place.  He couldn’t run up the tree, because the hawk was there.  And he couldn’t run across the yard.

So, he froze.  Here is a portion of that very boring video of a squirrel playing dead (rather playing mannequin), when a hawk was right above him in the tree…

Squirrel Stays Still While Hawk in Tree

I filmed that squirrel sitting there for about 5 minutes. I was rather impressed with how still he could be for such a long period of time.

Squirrels Flight or Fight Instinct?

While humans and other predatory animals tend to have a “flight or fight” instinct, squirrels have more of a  “flight or freeze” instinct and squirrels have evolved to be very good at determining whether they should run for the nearest tree, or stay still and quiet.

Squirrels will also pretty good fighters, especially adults.  Their long teeth can do serious damage to another animal’s face and body.

But they usually do not choose this path until it is their last option.

The Playing Dead Defense –  Squirrels

Squirrels have a decent memory and they usually know their territory pretty well.  But, still, new predators can enter a squirrel’s territory all the time.  Many times, it’s the smell of urine that gives them away.

It’s important to understand that they don’t play dead in the same way as an opossum. That’s because squirrels do not have biological mechanisms that kick in when they’re terrified.

Possums will actually emit a hormone that will send a fake signature of death to the predator.

However, like hedgehogs and even snakes and bunnies, squirrels might try.  They don’t do this often, however, but they could play dead on occasion if they can’t get away by any other means.

But, I’ve only heard of it, and never saw it happen like I have seen it with snakes, bunnies and opossums.

How Effective is a Squirrel’s Freeze Defense?

A perfectly still squirrel is nearly impossible to detect against a tree trunk or home foundation.  Their fur blends right into the landscape, making them appear like a rock or part of the scenery.

See the image below, it shows how a squirrel’s body can look just like the base of a tree trunk.  Squirrels know this, and use it to their advantage as built-in camoflouge.

how squirrels hide from predators
Squirrel Blends Into Tree

However, it’s its really windy, their bushy tail could give them away.  As the fur will certainly fly around in the wind if they don’t keep it tucked in.

Final Thoughts

Squirrel’s don’t  really “play dead,”  like other animals can.  Animals like opossums can really appear to be dead, and so can other animals

But not squirrels.  Instead, they stay perfectly still,  with their eyes open.  Throughout the day, squirrels must be highly alert, and that’s why they only close their eyes when sleeping.

This allows them to keep tabs on the predator in case they have to make a run for it.

So, a better way to describe a squirrel’s second line of defense against a predator is to call it playing “mannequin”  rather than playing dead,

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