By Winslow Umberger
Observing squirrels is like watching Ocean’s Eleven, Fast and Furious and The Goonies all rolled into one. They routinely pull off bird feeder heists and meticulously hide their precious provisions, fervently hunting for them later like misplaced car keys. Suddenly they are sprinting after each other, racing up, down and around trees with speeds varying from 12 to 20 miles per hour.
Why the chase scenes? “There are many reasons,” says Janice Burleson, an Asheville-based licensed wildlife rehabilitator. “Often it’s mating foreplay, but playing, running off predators and protecting food and babies can also result in wild pursuits.”
It seems as if they are constantly hiding their treasures. Remember Scrat, the acorn-obsessed, saber-toothed squirrel in the Ice Age movies? He took his acorn with him everywhere in search of a good place to hide it while he scoped out other nuts to further his store.
Today’s squirrels have the same obsession. Eastern gray squirrels, in particular, bury nuts far and wide. “They do this for when food is scarce,” Burleson says. “You might even see them burying and reburying nuts. Perhaps this strategy keeps their memories fresh as to where they are. But keeping track of their treasure isn’t their biggest problem: the gray squirrel community is rampant with theft. They can lose up to 25 percent of their carefully hidden nuts and seeds to thieves! To protect their stash, they cleverly create false caches or look for unlikely places to hide them.”
Interestingly, an October 2017 article in Scientific American cites a study performed by Mikel Delgado, an animal behaviorist now at the University of California, Davis. The study found that, under certain circumstances, squirrels will bury all of the same kind of nuts near one another, a memory technique known as chunking. “They would actually cache nuts that were the same species in distinct areas from nuts of a different species,” says Delgado.
Yet their loss is our gain. A study done at the University of Richmond cites that squirrels fail to recover up to 74 percent of the nuts they bury. Most of the nuts remain in the ground and these have the potential to sprout. This widespread caching has the happy, unintended result of contributing to the growth of forests.
Like any other living thing, squirrels are an important part of the web of life and should be seen as such. That’s why wildlife rehabilitators everywhere pour their time, energy and resources into saving every orphaned and injured squirrel that comes their way.
“When Hurricane Sandy hit, hundreds of baby squirrels were orphaned,” says Burleson. “Eight counties and 14 wildlife rehabilitators who provided round-the-clock feedings and care handled three shipments of 200 squirrels from a sanctuary on the East Coast. All but one were returned to the wild to do the job Nature meant for them to do.”
If you find an orphaned or injured squirrel, there are licensed wildlife rehabilitators in the area who can help. A triage center for wild animals in crisis is now open and can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by visiting the website AppalachianWild.org.
A squirrel’s role in life is not to aggravate you with unrelenting assaults on your bird feeders, even though it may seem so. If you can’t beat ‘em with “squirrel-proof” feeders, just appreciate ‘em.
Appalachian Wild is a 501 (c) (3) non-profit organization whose mission is to help injured and orphaned wildlife and to support our area’s volunteer licensed wildlife rehabilitators. Donations are tax-deductible. Learn more at AppalachianWild.org.