Squirrels Actually Organize Their Nut Hoard and Here's Why

Despite how common North American tree squirrels are, a number of misconceptions exist about the little critters. One is that they hibernate in the winter. In reality, they don’t. However, some squirrels — like the California ground squirrel — do take a long snooze during the colder months. Another misconception is that tree squirrels store their food in their nests or dens to snack on all winter. They don’t do that either. In fact, the process by which tree squirrels keep themselves fed during the winter is a bit more complex and active than stocking the ol’ pantry at home. Tree squirrels actually use a mnemonic technique called “spatial chunking” to sort out and bury their nut scores by size, type, and perhaps nutritional value and taste. When they’re hungry later, they’re able to remember exactly where to find what they want. Squirrels dine on a variety of foods, including seeds, nuts, acorns, tree buds, berries, parts of pinecones, and even bird eggs. Now and then they hit the jackpot and can chow down on a discarded piece of pizza. Some of those things they eat right away, while the rest is taken to their den or nest for later. When winter approaches, squirrels are faced with a challenge. They know instinctively that food sources will soon be scarce, so they gather all the food they’ll need, while also keeping themselves fed day to day. Because squirrels are “scatter hoarders” — meaning they hoard their food and scatter it in easily accessible locations — they often crack open nuts before burying them to keep them from germinating. So, the next time you see a squirrel digging up a nut, know that it might have just found the exact one it was looking for.