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Eastern Gray And American Red Squirrel Food Caching Strategies

Red and Gray Squirrels both store food for the winter, but their food caching strategies are very different. Gray Squirrels store many hickory, oak and beech nuts by engaging in “scatterhoarding” – burying one nut at a time, each in a different spot.  Most popular are acorns, which fall into two groups — those grown by white oak species , and those from the group of red oaks. The acorns of red oaks have delayed germination, making them ideal for storage through the winter.  Those of white oaks germinate sooner, in the fall, so are more readily eaten than buried.  (If a Gray Squirrel chooses to bury an acorn from one of the white oaks, it often removes the embryo before doing so, which kills the seed and prevents germination.)  

Red Squirrels, on the other hand, practice “larderhoarding” –  collecting green cones in the fall (up to 15,000 or more) and storing them in one place (generally in the middle of their territory) where they are fiercely protected. A large pile (midden) can result, under which new cones are placed. This cool, moist environment keeps the cones sealed, protecting the seeds from being eaten by mammals and insects that are unable to open the cones.  Middens can contain enough food to last one to two seasons. (Photo: Exceptionally large Red Squirrel midden submitted by Steve Bird of the Coastal Mountains Land Trust, Belfast, Maine)

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6 responses

  1. Alice

    That’s a HUGE midden. Busy squirrels. We’ve had a black squirrel in our neighborhood for several months.

    January 25, 2021 at 8:09 am

  2. lilacs1160

    and then there’re those gray squirrels like mine that turn the backyard shed into their pantry….the shelves are neatly stocked with walnuts (black walnut tree)! and shells on the ground.


    Sent from my iPhone


    January 25, 2021 at 8:17 am

  3. lilacs1160

    and then there’re the gray squirrels like mine who turn the backyard shed into their pantry….shelves neatly stocked with walnuts (from the black walnut trees). Shells on the floor.
    will send photo

    January 25, 2021 at 8:22 am

  4. What a huge midden – and up to 15,000 cones or more?! Holy cow!
    So Mary, here’s one question that comes to mind: Do red squirrels cooperate in creating a midden? or does each squirrel work independently?
    And here’s another question: I’ve heard that gray squirrels’ brain/memory cells are “replaced” from year to year, so that each year’s hiding places are recorded in fresh memory cells. Have you heard any such thing?
    I love it that gray squirrels somehow know to remove the embryo of white oak acorns before burying them! Do they only do this with acorns from white oaks, or do they do it with whatever acorns they’re burying?

    January 25, 2021 at 12:56 pm

    • Hi Dell,
      My understanding is that a midden is the work of a single red squirrel. I also believe they use smell as well as spatial cues to remember where they bury their nuts. Perhaps you’re thinking of black-capped chickadees? Here’s part of an Audubon article that cites just what you mentioned!

      “The brains of chickadees grow in the late summer and early fall. At this time of year the birds cache food, usually seeds, throughout their home range. Come winter, they need to be able to find what they’ve stashed. The growing part of the brain is the hippocampus, which plays an important role in spatial memory.

      Dr. Fernando Nottebohm of Rockefeller University in New York studies the growth of neurons in the brains of birds. He focused on the remarkable ability of Black-capped Chickadees to recall the locations of hundreds of stored seeds. His lab produced the first evidence that in the adult brain of birds neurons are replaced periodically, with the learning of new behaviors.

      Dr. Nottebohm suggests that as demand for memory space peaks, chickadees discard cells that hold old memories and replace them with new cells that store fresh memories.”

      Lastly, gray squirrels supposedly only remove the embryo of oaks in the group of white oak species, not those of the late-germinating species of the red oak group!

      January 26, 2021 at 6:02 pm

      • Thanks for all these interesting tidbits, Mary! I’ll have to check back with the source of my information re. gray squirrels’ brains (the Four Winds trainer who works with my school here in Worcester, VT) to see where she got her information. But that’s so interesting about chickadees’ memories! How perfect.
        And it seems to me that we can credit gray squirrels with impressive intelligence, to have learned the difference between the acorns from red and white oaks, and to behave accordingly. Or is there another possible behavioral explanation? Seems pretty remarkable to me!
        Thanks again!

        January 26, 2021 at 10:28 pm

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