Why did the squirrel cross the road?

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Why did the squirrel cross the road?

John DelGobbo

Votes: 2530

Everyone wonders why a squirrel doesn’t just take the shortest route and get off the road to safety, but I have a feeling squirrels are pre-wired to change directions.

When a predator like a fox is chasing a squirrel, it changes course as the squirrel does. Sudden changes of direction or reversing course will make it harder for a predator to catch the squirrel. The car isn’t actually trying to catch the squirrel, but the squirrel can’t make that connection or realize that cars are pretty much confined to the road. So the squirrel will suddenly reverses course hoping to throw the predator (the car) off, but the car continues to go straight, effectively fooling the squirrel. The squirrel will instinctively reverse course and run back into the middle of the road and into the path of a car.

Q: Why do you think squirrels run in the middle of the road when a car comes?

Alan Puccinelli

Votes: 2233

As someone who’s run over more than my fair share of squirrels in my day I will offer you these observations that may shed some light on your question:

Adriana Heguy

Votes: 8716

Without an actual study, monitoring the behavior of squirrels daily at different times of day, for several days, for long periods, at different times of the year, and at different locations, my assumption is that squirrels do not cross the road more frequently when there are cars than when there are not cars. Why?

But I have my own cognitive biases, so I went to look for studies. There were no studies on the proportion of squirrels that get killed crossing busy roads, but in England they set up rope bridges over busy roads where dead squirrels have been observed. And it turns out that the squirrels figured out how to use the rope bridges and avoid the cars![1] . This is a clear sign of learning, this confirming or at least supporting my point 3. In addition, it turns out that finding out if the rope bridges work was not easy, because at least in Aberdeen, squirrels do not cross busy roads very often![2] . This observation supports my point 3 about the intelligence of squirrels, in addition to supporting point 1.


Kendall Larsen

Votes: 3469

I call them suicide squirrels. Sometimes when they have successfully crossed the road and cleared the car, they cross back in front of you putting themselves in harms way again.

Their mechanism for avoiding predators may be to change direction abruptly.

When I was an undergrad, I thought it might be interesting to see if road kills had any impact on reducing this behavior.

It all depends on how crucial the mechanism is in avoiding predictors. The incidence of road kill may have no influence in shaping the behavior.

Also, this scatter running seems to play a roll in courtship or male dominance, as I often see squirrels chasing each other through the forest in this way, making the behavior important on other fronts.

I think there may be road kill studies for other animals like raccoon and deer. I don’t know the outcomes.

These are just my musings.

Paul Zink

Votes: 2214

They don’t. Squirrels cross the road to get from where they are to where they want to go for reasons that have nothing to do with car traffic. Squirrels (and other animals that cross the road at awkward times, like deer) don’t comprehend what motor vehicles are, especially at any distance, and only react when a car is almost on top of them because at that point the car becomes in their minds a distinct large object about to interact with them—at which point the simple decision is to avoid contact with the big thing by going back or going forward.

It only seems to you that squirrels cross the road when a car is present because that’s the only time you see them crossing the road (as a driver or passenger).

Your question is like asking “why is the sky blue only when I look at it?”

John Reynolds

Votes: 2619

They’re squirrels. In their tiny little rodent minds, the street isn’t running from horizon to horizon with cars traveling end to end. That’s how your human brain understands it, but to them it’s different. It’s a big flat area like a rock or ancient lava flow. Cars appear on the flat space randomly, chasing rodents for food. They’re hunting, and their intentions (including travel direction) are unknown and unfathomable.

So squirrels and deer and most other mammals just do what they’ve always done to successfully avoid predators trying to kill them. They run. If that isn’t working, they run back to safety.

Sergio DinizGab Chan

Votes: 8935

In safaris, where people can get very close to wild animal (being there and it is amazing to stay on 2 meters aways from lions eating a carcass), there is a theory that seems to work: animals see the vehicle and their occupants altogether as a “big beast”. I will reproduce here Sergio Diniz’s answer to When using safari vehicles or any vehicle where people are taking pictures of animals in Africa, what keeps predators from attacking the people in the vehicles?

I’ve been to Safaris in Africa and heard a lot from professionals, as well as what I saw in person and also read about. The best explanation I heard is that animals, and more specifically the predators, have their view much more focused to movement tracking (which is a scientific fact), than details on its preys.

Thus, when they see an open safari vehicle, full of people, all they see is one single thing: a large beast with some appendages on top (heads). As a large, and potentially powerful beast does not interest them, as well as other large animals as adult rhinos and elephants: they know the hunting effort is not worthy. Not because they fear humans.

However, all attention is necessary, as apex predator as lions or even leopards are relatively intelligent and curious animals. If somebody stands up and detaches himself from the rest of the “beast mass”, the predator may be curious and while in doubt if that is a part of the large beast or is something else separate it may then investigate or attack. In case of an attack, we all can imagine what happens. If it starts to investigate too close, many tourists may lose their nerves, stand up and even run… which will be the worst mistake, as the predator will then be sure that it is a prey and will start chasing (hunting reflex), and they run much faster than any of us.

Considering that, the local guides normally orient passengers to stay seated, quiet, only observing when close to animals. They teach you to never stand up, shake arms or worst, get out of the safari vehicle. In this last case, the animal will be sure you are not part of the large beast and will notice you are actually the perfect size for a prey…

However, some private game reserves do not disclose the fact that, in order to maintain the “savage aspect” of the tour, specially those where and open safari vehicle is used, they “prepare” the animals to get used to human presence. Before opening a new game reserve or when new animals are brought (yes, they do buy animals from other places to populate or replace losses, so there is plenty to be seen by tourists), they get the animals used to the safari vehicle and people, by running close to them on a frequent basis, until the animal is used to the vehicle and people and do not show aggressiveness anymore. They do it until the “large beast” is already a part of the landscape. That is why they really do not attack.

Nevertheless, if a pack of lions insist on being aggressive to humans, which makes the reserve lose money, they resell or even shoot down the rebels. Sad, not? No publicity on this, bad for business.

This is so true that in wild reserves the thing changes completely: no more open safari vehicles and guards always carrying rifles. From time to time, unfortunately, fatalities do happen (see 10 safari horror stories that will chill you to the bone) and is not uncommon the business and even governments to avoid disclosure as much as possible. Bad for business.

I remembered something. I myself “almost” suffered an accident. A male elephant from outside the game reserve invaded the reserve in the previous night, breaking its fences, and “dethroned” the resident pack’s male, breaking one of his tusks and was furiously wandering the reserve, chasing the running females. Male elephants are very dangerous during the mating season. During the afternoon safari our open vehicle directly faced this male, but thanks to the driver’s expertise, who immediately identified the threat and abruptly moved backwards at all speed possible, a breathtaking experience.

It was pretty much like the photo above, but luckily a little more distant, but not much. My nerves and beating heart did not allow me to take a photo.

The driver, a black man, went pale, but did not pronounce a single word then to not make other tourists afraid. In reality, as everybody else was talking or taking photos, probably only I myself (sitting together with the driver) noticed what was happening, but I saw the driver’s hands and legs shaking. For most people it was just a “nice and beautiful elephant”. Some complained about the blunt maneuver. Taking aside the scary situation and a rip in my jacket and hole in my cap (during the maneuver we went too close to a tree with thorns like steel), happily nobody got hurt.

In these cases, against elephants, it really does not matter if your vehicle is open or closed…

Despite it all, it is a unique experience, especially if the tourists are adequately warned about the true risks. I recommend it.


Just a reminder that even professionals are attacked by wildlife from time to time, see Sergio Diniz’s answer to Have any National Geographic reporters been attacked by an animal?

Cheri Nappi

Votes: 5183

Because they are!😛 No, I’m just joking. They have very fast metabolisms so due to that they run around three way they do. They will eat many times a day and actually are highly intelligent and very much like humans in their behavior. My mother used to feed three squirrels in our yard bagels with pb&j on then every morning & if she slept late they would all line up (I’m talking like at least 20 squirrels) on our shed and knock on our kitchen window while we’d be having our coffee. My cat brought me a 1 day old baby once after its mother got electrocuted send although I raised it to be able to return to the wild it decided to remain with me. So I would walk around with him chillin on my shoulder and when people would pull up to me is use that as an opportunity to teach others about squirrels. I truly couldn’t believe how many misconceptions people have about squirrels. Whenever i’d go out i’d say “zippy hide” & he would crawl into my bra wren i’d go into any store & wouldn’t come out until I told him to. He was one of the most amazing fur babies i’d ever had!💞

David Lutness

Votes: 1884

This is an assumption that I don’t know is true. But here are some possible explanations

These are all I can think of, but there might be more.

Tom Meier

Votes: 2675

They can’t gauge the threat because a car doesn’t move like a natural object.

The situation is not unlike parachute jumping. When you land with a parachute you hit with roughly the same force as jumping off a three foot high wall. No problem right? Actually you can easily break both your legs.

The reason we don’t usually break our legs jumping down three feet is because our body instinctively knows how to adjust itself for a normal jump. The parachute however completely disorients this instinctive response and we hit like a sack of potatoes until we become used to it and adjust our expectations. So your instructor lands like a cat.

In the same way, a squirrel who would have no problem avoiding a horse or a cow gets confused by an automobile. Birds are better at avoiding cars because flying is more similar to a car’s motion.

Kevin Lawson

Votes: 2577

Squirrels know they are very tasty and in your car you seem to be a huge predator coming up fast with the intent of killing and eating them. They figure that the last thing you are expecting they will do is run right in front of you and then just stop. Instead, they assume you are going to run towards where they are going and snarf them up there. By going against expectations, they will totally throw you off and then they will finish crossing the street and climb a tree before you have recovered.

Once you have figured this out, it is very easy to catch them. The hard part for me was teaching th

Tricia Pawzun

Votes: 5337

I wish I knew. Seems some are playing Russian roulette or chicken. Some might just be tired of the never ending nutty world and want out.

I’ve stopped and gotten out of my car to pick up injured squirrels and take them to a wildlife rescue group. If they don’t make it, at least they won’t be suffering living out their last moments in agony or being run over multiple times.

When I see one beyond help I feel sad.

I think they’re adorable, funny, mischievous scamps.

Norm Keller

Votes: 3219

As will be obvious, I am not academically informed regarding squirrel psychology, but have some acquaintance with squirrels.

Squirrels have two classes of enemies, airborne and ground-based. Squirrels have had insufficient interaction with motor vehicles for evolution to have affected their behaviour. When a squirrel encounters an airborne threat, it watches the threat in order to dodge at the appropriate moment to escape. When a squirrel encounters a ground-based threat, it runs as quickly and directly to the nearest sanctuary.

The problem for squirrel reaction is quickly understood if one lies

Larry Seiler

Votes: 1189

A prey animal doesn’t have the energy to spare to run away every time there is a predator in the vicinity. So they run away when the predator gets close enough. It seems likely to me that that’s why squirrels and other prey creatures pause — they are assessing whether the danger means they should run. And when you get too close, they do. Sadly, a car is a lot faster than a squirrel.

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