Both carnivores and herbivores cache, or store, food for later consumption. Black-capped Chickadees tuck seeds into bark crevices. Bobcats may cover their kills with leaves, grass, snow and even hair from their prey’s carcass. Grey Squirrels bury their nuts individually, while Red Squirrels often hide green cones in a pile of cone scales (middens) that accumulate at the site where the squirrels have previously eaten seeds, keeping the young cones moist so that they will retain the seeds within them.
Red Squirrels sometimes go one step further than most animals that cache food — they frequently preserve their food by drying it before storing it. You’ll recognize this when you see it – an apple or mushroom stuck in the crotch of two branches. Sometimes the dried food is collected and cached near their winter quarters, but often it remains lodged in tree branches until eaten. The pictured mushroom, which was hung out to dry, was reduced almost to mush by the torrential rains we’ve had lately. Eventually it will dry out and remain edible into the winter.
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If you have oak trees in the woods near you, chances are great that their acorns attracted wildlife this past fall, one of which was most likely a Gray Squirrel. Unlike Black Bears, Wild Turkeys and White-tailed Deer, which eat acorns immediately upon finding them, Gray Squirrels tend to cache acorns for winter consumption. They do so by burying them individually, often in fairly close proximity to where they find them. (Red Squirrels also cache food in the fall, but typically bury numerous seeds, mostly conifers and maples, in one spot.) When food becomes scarce, as it usually does this time of year, it is possible to find numerous holes dug in the snow, frequently with leaves and bits of acorn shells littering the snow around them. Tell-tale Gray Squirrel tracks leading to and from these holes identify the excavator.
There is a marked seasonal difference in the Red Squirrel’s appearance due to its two annual molts (spring and fall). In the winter, a broad rusty-red band extends along its back, from its ears to the tip of its tail. The Red Squirrel’s thicker winter coat also includes ear tufts, which no other species of squirrel in the Northeast possesses. Come spring, when the squirrel sheds again, it loses its ear tufts and its new coat is closer to an olive-green color than red.
In the fall, Eastern Gray Squirrels bury individual acorns from Red and White Oaks to sustain themselves through the winter. The acorns of Red Oaks have delayed germination – they can be stored up to six months before they start germinating. The acorns of White Oaks, however, have no such dormancy, and begin to germinate in the fall, soon after they fall from the tree. Once acorns sprout, they are less nutritious, as the seed tissue converts to the indigestible lignins that form the root. Gray Squirrels, as a means of “long-term cache management,” selectively remove the embryos from White Oak acorns (but not from Red Oak acorns) before burying them. Germination is prevented, and the storage viability of the White Oak acorns is extended by six months, equaling that of the Red Oak acorns.