There are more than 200 species of squirrels, and they live almost all over the world. Unless you live in Australia, where there are no native squirrels, you are likely familiar with the furry-tailed rodents.
Whether you think the critters are adorable or consider them a nuisance, you’ve probably seen them scurry off with nuts or bury acorns in your yard and wondered how they keep track. How do squirrels remember where they squirreled away their food for the colder months? These clever critters have a few methods for keeping track, but their behavior proves that it takes more than a good memory to get through the winter.
Squirrels Hide A Lot Of Nuts
Researchers think that squirrels use methods similar to what clever birds like jays use to keep track of their caches — landmarks, markers and directions. But squirrels also seem to use smell, because they don’t bury their nuts near the surface.
Also, while squirrels don’t retrieve everything they stash, that’s not because they’ve forgotten where they stored their nuts. Squirrels prepare for the worst and hide more than they’ll need to get through a long winter. If they don’t dig up a stash, they probably didn’t need it.
Squirrels Are Organized
Different types of squirrels have different approaches to storing nuts for the winter. Red squirrels keep their hoards in a “midden,” which is a single stockpile. They then focus on protecting their mass of morsels.
However, fox squirrels and gray squirrels practice scatter hoarding, which is hiding nuts in multiple holes in a specific territory. Researchers believe these squirrels use strategies to recall where they have secreted their stashes. A study by University of California Berkeley psychology professor Lucia F. Jacobs and postdoctoral researcher Mikel Delgado showed that fox squirrels organized their stores by nut species, “chunking” nuts together in different caches.
“Squirrels may use chunking the same way you put away your groceries. You might put fruit on one shelf and vegetables on another,” Jacobs told Berkeley News. “Then, when you’re looking for an onion, you only have to look in one place, not every shelf in the kitchen.”
If you ever notice a squirrel digging up his cache only to hide it directly in another hole, it might be because it’s taking a protective measure. It seems there is no honor among squirrels — they have no qualms about stealing from their fellow critters. Sticky-fingered squirrels steal as much as 25 percent of others’ nuts. So they sometimes pretend to stash something in the ground just to throw off hungry onlookers.
No wonder squirrels always seem so busy — they have a lot to keep track of to make it through the winter!