Getting Nutty: How Squirrels Prepare for Winter
Discovery Place Science
As the temperature drops and the days get shorter, you may be pulling out warmer clothing and spending less time outside. Just like you, the animals of the Carolinas are also preparing for winter.
To see it for yourself, look for the gray squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis). Gray squirrels are the most common tree squirrel in North Carolina and are abundant across the whole state, even in cities. Do you ever wonder why they seem to be everywhere?
One reason gray squirrels are so common is that they eat many different foods like seeds, nuts, mushrooms and flowers. They also show incredible problem-solving skills while stealing food from bird feeders (leading to lots of frustrated bird watchers). Despite the extra food that squirrels get from humans, winter is still tough.
Gathering and Storing Food
To prepare for colder months, squirrels cache food during the spring and summer by gathering extra nuts. They bury the surplus in the area surrounding their nests, splitting it into different underground pantries to save for later.
This may seem simple, but there is more to it than meets the eye. For one, squirrels are sneaky. Other squirrels will steal from their fellows so squirrels practice deceptive caching. If a squirrel with food knows it’s being watched, it will pretend to bury the food, only caching the real thing when the coast is clear.
Squirrels also strategically place their caches. If they have better food, they will place it in open areas. This makes it more dangerous to access (beware of swooping hawks) but harder for rivals to steal.
Organizing and Separating Food
There is evidence that gray squirrels organize caches, putting different types of nuts into separate caches in a process called spatial chunking. Squirrels use their memory and excellent sense of smell to find these categorized caches.
Squirrels also try to eat a lot to build fat reserves for the winter. After the preparation is done and the cold finally sets in, squirrels will share a leaf-filled den and snuggle up with others to keep warm!
So next time you see a squirrel, think about all the work it takes for animals to stay warm in winter.