How Do Squirrels Find Those Buried Nuts?

By Chris Williams on November 18, 2015.

We think squirrels are so clever to be able to locate all those nuts that they buried months before. They do remember some of their hiding places, but when a squirrel triumphantly comes up with a buried nut, there’s a good chance it wasn’t her nut at all. Squirrels seem to find most of the buried nuts not from memory, but by using an excellent sense of smell. It doesn’t really matter if it’s yours, a found nut is a found nut. Estimates are that a squirrel will lose up to 25% of its buried nut cache to thievery from other squirrels, birds, or other animals. And then a certain percentage are just lost and will likely germinate and become trees.

Because squirrels don’t hibernate, but remain active all winter, they need a reliable food source to get them through (see Where Do Squirrels Spend the Winter?). In cold regions, they become very busy in the fall, gathering and storing and burying nuts for the winter. They also eat a lot during this time to put on weight for times when they may not be able to get outside for days because of the weather.

Burying Nuts for Winter is a Fine Art

Most squirrels engage in “scatter hoarding” which means they will hide individual food items or small collections of food items in many places throughout their territory. The items are usually buried shallowly but they may also be placed in tree cavities or forks, or under leaves for later use.

There is a strategy to burying nuts. They should not be clumped too close together or they could be too easy for others to find. But they cannot be buried so far apart that the squirrel spends too much time in hiding and recovery. To throw other squirrels off of the scent, so to speak, some squirrels will engage in “deceptive caching” where they dig a hole and then cover it up without depositing a nut.

Red squirrels, in particular, also create huge “middens” which are hoarded piles of evergreen cones stored above ground. A single squirrel can collect and cache hundreds of cones in a day, one by one. But since the food is not hidden by burying, the red squirrel must defend its midden pile from thievery (see Red Squirrel Middens).

Squirrels Will Hoard Food in Your Attic, Too

Those squirrels that move into attics or sheds for the winter will move food in also. There may be a food hoard pile of nuts, seeds, acorns, or pine cones stored in a corner or between rafters (see Squirrels Can Make a Mess of Your Attic).

If you’ve had squirrels spending the winter in your attic in the past, now is the time to have Colonial Pest squirrel-proof your home to keep them out (see What’s the Best Way to Seal Squirrels Out?). Give us a call!

Photo credit: “Acorns small to large” by David Hill – Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Commons.



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