Friday Fact: Squirrels Aren’t Dumb

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Do squirrels run in front of cars because they’re the dumbest animal in the forest, or because thousands of years of evolution never prepared them for something as big, noisy and fast as a car?

I quit cursing the “stupidity” of the Eastern gray squirrel after watching a BBC documentary, The Life of Mammals (outstanding; highly recommended).

For squirrels, some kinds of acorn are better for eating now, while others are better for burying and saving for later. White oak acorns are best for eating now, since they tend to grow a big root that makes them hard for squirrels to dig up, and are also more vulnerable to being eaten by beetle grubs. Red oak acorns are for burying.

Squirrels sort acorns by smell, and are able to identify the kind of acorn as well as how close to germination it is. If there aren’t enough red oak acorns around (the kind that are better to bury and store) and squirrels have to store white oak acorns for their winter feed, they “kill” the white oak acorns by biting off the tip so it won’t sprout.

Squirrels don’t just eat until they’re full and then store what they find, but have evolved complex responses to changes in their environment.

Here‘s the scoop on acorn-sorting squirrels, in a BBC page written by a squirrel-studying scientist.

BTW Eastern gray squirrels aren’t even native to the BBC viewing area. They’re an unprotected, invasive pest species in Britain, only introduced in the 19th century, and are slowly driving out the native red squirrel like living kudzu.

What a shame for a living, breathing, decision-making creature to be forced into the role of unwelcome invader.

If you live in WNC, where Eastern grays are annoying but cute and absolutely belong in this ecosystem (their scientific name is S. carolinensis), remember them this winter. I heard on a local radio gardening program the other night that it was the horrible frost that hit in April that killed most of this year’s crop of acorns. According to the person on the broadcast, WNC nut-eaters like squirrels, groundhogs, wood mice and chipmunks will have a very hard time finding enough food.

Today I realized that it’s December and I have yet to see my annual fall visitor, Gordon the groundhog, who usually stuffs his face with my acorns, rests in the sun of my back yard and grooms himself like a cat on the steps leading to my neighbors’ storage shed.

And on the college quad I saw something I’ve never seen before — a squirrel devouring a cantaloupe rind. Do squirrels eat fruit, or was this one desperate for winter feed?

I’ll be setting out some corn.

4 responses to “Friday Fact: Squirrels Aren’t Dumb

  1. Very interesting about the acorns… I have always been impressed by the confidence with which squirrels move, scampering along the smallest branches and leaping from tree to tree with such easy grace. Nothing tentative in the way they move. And, as much as I hate the way they raid birdfeeders, I must admire their resourcefulness in figuring out the best method of birdseed larceny.
    By the way, at our house, there seem to be more acorns than ever this year. And the squirrels look quite plump and prosperous. But we do have lots of oaks.

  2. Many years ago, on the grounds of Hever Castle (England), a groundskeeper — knowing we were Americans — launched into an invective against that very same invasive American gray squirrel.

  3. I found this fascinating. I never knew that about white and red acorns. I presume they come respectively from the white and red oaks. We have several oaks at Blackberry Ridge and now I’m wondering which they are. I’ll have to pull out my Audubon book when next up there. Anyway, I’m ever amazed at nature and how it “knows what to do”. I hope Beth’s situation is common – plenty of acorns after all!

  4. Whoops, I fixed the post to read “white OAK acorns”! I too am curious as to what kind of oaks I’ve got on my street.

    While I too hope Beth’s situation is common, I am telling you June, Asheville got next to no acorns this year. Instead of littering the ground as they usually do, literally crunching and rolling at every step when you walk under a tree, every last one has already been eaten.

    I also recently found out that squirrels do indeed eat fruit.

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