This week’s question was asked by a kid on the bus.
QUESTION: How do squirrels find the nuts and acorns they buried in the fall?
ANSWER: We’ve all witnessed the squirrel’s autumn ritual − their no-nonsense scurrying about the lawns and parks, front paws and cheeks full of acorns. Two gray squirrels are working in my front yard as I write this column, constantly looking up and around for any signs of danger. It’s quite obvious they’re collecting nuts and acorns to prepare for winter, when there is less food available. I had to go look up some stuff on squirrels.
In winter, a squirrel can stay hidden in a tree nest, hole, crevice or ground burrow for a day or two, but after that they get mighty hungry and need to eat. Tree squirrels don’t hibernate like their ground squirrel cousins.
Red squirrels collect their nuts and store them in piles. It’s a central location, called a midden, located in a tree cavity under leaves or in branch forks of trees. The more numerous gray squirrels bury their nuts in the ground and in various locations, scattered caches around their territory. It makes it harder for other animals or naughty squirrels to pilfer their entire food supply. It’s the same idea that financial advisors give us humans − “don’t put all your eggs in one basket” or in one stock. Develop a diversified portfolio.
If a squirrel is scurrying all over the place and hiding nuts everywhere, how does it remember where the food is hidden? There have been two schools of thought on this subject. One theory is that the squirrel uses his sense of smell to find his stock of food. The second theory is that the squirrel has developed a mental picture, using landmarks, such as trees.
Scientists seem to study everything, and a Princeton group published a study in the journal Animal Behavior entitled “Grey Squirrels Remember the Locations of Buried Nuts.” Note that those Eastern types use the “grey” spelling, while we Midwesterners go with “gray.”
The gray squirrel is a wily creature. He will bury “fake” nuts to trick other squirrels from finding his stash. Some will dig holes and bury nothing, pretending to have buried nuts. Squirrels partly use scent to uncover their buried treasure, and they do steal a nut or two from other squirrels’ caches. However, scent is not totally reliable. When the ground is too dry or covered too deep in snow, scent is of little use. Trying to find nuts through ice is impossible.
The Princeton study indicates that squirrels use spatial memory to locate stored food. The squirrel goes back more often to their own food supply rather than the caches of other squirrels. They bury their food near landmarks that aid them in remembering where they stored the food. They seem to form a cognitive map of all their storage locations.
They also remember the amount of food in their own caches, returning first to the cache that has the largest amount of stored food. Some squirrels will dig up and rebury nuts to determine if the stored food is still good.
Dr. Smallwood, Ohio State University, has studied squirrel behavior for 10 years. He says squirrels only find 75 percent of the nuts they bury, whether by smell or memory mapping. That’s a bonus for the woodlands, because those nuts can grow into trees.
Dr. Smallwood claims that a gray squirrel, the kind we have a lot of in the Tomah area, is more likely to bury a red oak acorn, which is rich in fat and sprouts in the spring. The squirrel is more likely to eat a white oak acorn immediately, because it will germinate soon after it hits the ground. The red oak acorn is high in tannin, which isn’t as tasty as the white oak acorn. Mr. Squirrel will leave the red oak acorn to spring eating.
Spring is a hard time for squirrels. They’re running out of stored food. They will go for road kills and dumpsters with discarded pizza boxes and chicken bones. If desperate, they will seek out bird eggs and even young nestlings.
The fall season was always special for the three Scheckel boys growing up on the Crawford County farm outside Seneca. Fall meant squirrel hunting with the .22 single-shot rifle. We had to wait until we had the first frost, something about the meat not being good if the weather was warm.
We preferred the bigger red squirrels, but gray would do. Squirrels would hide in the nests and leaves early in the fall season, but when the leaves were gone, they high-tailed it for the holes in trees. We always kept a few firecrackers left over from the Fourth of July for our late fall forays.
Seeing a squirrel entering a hole, one of us would scramble up the tree, light a firecracker, and drop it down in the hole. More than a few times, that squirrel would come out, fur singed, head shaking and was soon dispatched. We won’t mention the time my brother fell out a tree and broke his arm because the wind blew the firecracker back on him.
Our dad taught us how to skin a squirrel and prepare it for the frying pan. Squirrel is a very tasty, incredibly tender meat, same as rabbit.
Most of us love to see squirrels working the lawns in the fall. It is a marvel how they know that they must prepare for the winter ahead. They can’t be the smartest creatures God put on Earth. We’ve all seen a squirrel run across the road in front of a car, get most of the way across, then turn around and dart back, only to be squished. It’s a miracle they are not an endangered species.
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Larry Scheckel is a retired Tomah High School physics teacher.