Digging Squirrels

by Carl Strang

Tracking is a valuable way to learn about wildlife. So is familiarity with the scientific literature. Today we combine the two, benefiting from both. The recent first snowfalls of the season have made clear the extent to which tree squirrels are digging up their buried food. In northeastern Illinois we are talking about both fox squirrels

Fox squirrel. Note the red belly and tail color.

and gray squirrels.

Gray squirrel. Here the tail is edged in white; the belly likewise is pale.

In my walks around Mayslake Forest Preserve over the past couple of weeks it is clear that squirrels have been digging like crazy, excavating previously buried acorns and nuts.

Squirrel excavation site. Note how the squirrel sniffed around for a while to the right before zeroing in on the buried food. An earlier study, the reference to which I am too lazy to dig out at the moment, found that squirrels remember only the general areas in which they have buried food. They find the precise spot with their sensitive noses.

Doesn’t it seem awfully soon to be digging out food that was buried only a few weeks ago? This is where the literature familiarity helps. Last year I described a study of the discriminatory behavior of tree squirrels.

It turns out that these squirrel guys and gals are fattening in the fall on the lower quality acorns and nuts. They bury the better ones. By now these foods have all been eaten, stored, or have germinated and thus rendered unavailable as food. So it makes sense immediately to return to the stores and begin exploiting them.

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