Summit Outside: Saving up for winter: squirrels stashing their food
Special to the Daily
When Louis Perrinjaquet, or Doc PJ as he is known locally, returned from doing wonderful deeds for six weeks in Sudan, he found a squatter had moved into his home in Breckenridge and filled his boots with pine cones.
Well pine cones are used extensively in holiday decorations and to make wreaths. It is a Christmas tradition to fill stockings with small presents, why not boots and shoes? Pine is also a common scent put into cleaning products and air fresheners. Perhaps a small guest was doing PJ a favor.
In actually it was the stash of a squirrel who found the boots, and dwelling unoccupied and thus an appealing location to “crash.”
The culprit squirrel was trapped and relocated to Shock Hill by Ellen Hollingshead and Jeffrey Bergeron. I was relieved to know that Ellen was thoughtful enough to bring the pine cones the squirrel had so laboriously stashed along too.
From the picture there were at least 60 or more pine cones, some quite large. I imagine it must have taken quite some time for the squirrel to pick up the cones one-by-one, get through a hole large enough to enter PJ’s house and stash them neatly one-by-one in the collection of footwear neatly placed by the door.
Ellen checked, and half the pine cones were gone the following day, presumably to new hiding place somewhere on Shock Hill, maybe in some else’s shoe collection.
A number of people mentioned that they also had a similar experience with having their footwear used as stashing places.
A favorite grey squirrel friend of mine used to insist on stashing pine cones and peanuts in my flower pots. We had a little game going where she would rummage in my pockets for peanuts when I sat on the patio and immediately stash run them in various flower pots. She rarely ate them on the spot.
There was an experiment done with grey squirrels and to see whether they knew where they hid nuts. Each squirrel was released alone into an outdoor arena, where it cached l0 hazelnuts. After a delay of two, four or l2 days, each squirrel was returned to the area and tested for its ability to retrieve nuts from its own caches and from sites used by other squirrels.
Although each squirrel’s own caches were close to the caches of other squirrels, the squirrels retrieved significantly more nuts from their own sites than from sites used by other squirrels. The retrieval accuracy of the grey squirrels indicate that they can find their food by smell, but they can also remember the individual locations of nuts they have stashed.
Recent studies have shown that some squirrels have an amazing sense of spatial awareness that helps them remember where they put their food stash. In addition to ground coordinates, they can deal with the elevation as well. They use a system of triangulation to remember where they have hidden their food. They triangulate the location of hiding places using what we would call “landmarks.”
While the human brain might be able to remember four to five triangulations to locate something, the tiny squirrel brain can remember 300-400 triangulations to locate the food they have hidden. Pretty amazing!
Gray and fox squirrels hide their food in many places, so if another squirrel or animal were to find it, the entire year’s supply would not be lost. Sometimes they hide food temporarily, until they can move it to a more convenient location. This is called “scatter hoarding.”
The red and pine squirrels will dig a shallow pit, this is referred to as a “midden,” where they store the cones they’ve cut or found. This supply will then be covered with leaves, or other debris, which creates a cold and moist storage environment. This practice is known as “larder hoarding.”
There are endless squirrel stories. These acrobatic creatures are a source of much amusement. Bird feeder designers are continuously stymied in designing feeders that are “squirrel proof.”
I’ve seen one after the other supposedly squirrel proof feeder barricades solved by squirrels. If there is food, they will find a way to get to it! I’ve seen a squirrel hanging by one toe off one of those upside down metal plates put on top of bird feeders, munching happily on the seeds.
I saw one conquer a “squirrel proof” metal wrap placed at the bottom of a post holding a bird feeding platform. The first leaps weren’t high enough and it slid unceremoniously down, but each successive leaps were higher until with one huge leap it reached the wood portion of the post and used its sharp claws to climb onto the feeder.
It is not uncommon for a squirrel to hop or jump up to six feet in one bound. Most of us have seen squirrels racing through trees, and watch them jump between branches of great distances.
The average speed of a squirrel, at a full run, is between 8 and 10 mph. There is a report of an police officer that once clocked a gray squirrel with his radar gun at 20 mph as it ran across a highway.
The word squirrel comes from ancient Greek which means shadow-tailed, referring to the bushy appendage possessed by many of its members.
The squirrel uses its tail for balance. This enables the squirrel to maneuver quickly without falling. It can also be used as a parachute, should the squirrel fall. It can serve as a blanket in cold weather. Squirrels also use their tail to communicate with other squirrels. “flicking” which means “get away!”
Squirrels are solitary animals. They do not have a hierarchical structure, and therefore, no group name has ever been established.
Joanne Stolen is retired from teaching microbiology at Rutgers University.
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