Election season can be tough on friendships, neighbors, and our mental health. To distract myself, I rearranged my bird feeders for prime visibility from my home office. Chickadees immediately swooped in, while nuthatches puttered around, squeaking. They are both picky eaters, and tend to weigh each seed in their beaks before tossing it curtly to the side, or flying off to peck at it from a perch. Fat gray squirrels snuffled around under the feeder picking up the leavings.
Then, while deep in an email, a knock on the window jerked my attention up. One of those dastardly gray squirrels had made an impressive vertical leap and was hanging from a wildly swinging feeder. I felt my blood pressure rise.
To calm down, I went back to doom scrolling through the news. Among the vitriol and uncertainty, a meme popped up about understanding and empathy for our neighbors who didn’t vote with us. As I stared off into the distance contemplating this, an adorable gray nose poked up above the bottom of the window. “Damn squirrels,” I thought. And then realized, maybe they are the neighbor I should start with.
A dastardly gray squirrel eats all the bird seed from the author’s feeder. Photo by Emily Stone
If you’re one who already admires squirrels, then you might wonder what I have against them. Well, there are objective reasons, like the fact that they chew destructively on doorframes and deck railings. They’re also causing the demise of native squirrels in several European countries where they’ve been introduced, but let’s not borrow trouble.
Then there are the subjective reasons I grumble at squirrels. My family has always enjoyed feeding and watching birds. Squirrels dominate a feeder, eat an expensive amount of seeds that we purchased for the birds, and keep the birds away. To add injury to insult, squirrels are nest predators, and eat baby birds. I can usually be philosophical about how the food chain plays out in nature, but this one rubs me the wrong way.
What is there to like about squirrels? Well, I admit that they can be cute. Their antics are entertaining. And like all living things, they are an important part of their ecosystem. My favorite role for squirrels, of course, is that they are food for minks, foxes, bobcats, wolves, coyotes, lynx, fishers, and red-tailed hawks—all animals I like more. But perhaps this isn’t a productive line of thinking.
Before they become someone’s lunch, squirrels have positive impacts on another favorite of mine: oak trees. That squirrels eat acorns is cliché, but HOW they eat them is more nuanced. For example, squirrels treat the acorns of white oaks and red oaks differently. Squirrels eat white oak acorns on the spot. Pick up a red oak acorn, and the squirrel will hide it away for later. These habits are a result of two big differences between the oaks.
First, white oak acorns contain fewer tannins, which are acids that interfere with the digestion of proteins. That makes the acorns more nutritious for a squirrel. Second, white oak acorns are programmed to germinate in the fall. If a squirrel were to cache it in a hole somewhere, the acorn would sprout, and the baby tree would use up the energy stored within. The highly acidic acorns of red oaks, on the other hand, need at least 4-8 weeks of cold stratification before they will germinate. In the wild, that means they wait until spring. A squirrel has the entire winter to get around to eating them.
Now, it’s a common story that new oak trees grow from acorns that squirrels hid and forgot about, or died before they could retrieve. Sometimes, though, a squirrel will actually nip out the embryo of an acorn before they cache it, which prevents it from ever germinating. In contrast, sometimes a squirrel will eat more than half of an acorn—starting from the end with the cap where there are fewer tannins—and the seed will still be able to grow. One study actually found that partially eaten acorns had a better germination rate than intact acorns. Plus, squirrels can identify which acorns are infested with weevil larvae. Those are eaten, and the viable, uninfested acorns are cached. Squirrels can plant their trees and eat them too.
And finally, one of the most fascinating things about squirrels’ relationship with acorns is how it impacts their interactions with other squirrels. Gray squirrels are scatter hoarders, which means that they hide food all over the place, in up to several thousand locations each season. Experiments suggest that they retrieve their own caches using a phenomenal spatial memory, and not their sense of smell. Smell is helpful for finding and eating someone else’s cache, though.
Stealing food is common among squirrels, which is why they are extremely sneaky while making caches. If prying eyes are nearby, the squirrel will pretend to dig a hole, put in the acorn, and cover it up, all while hiding the food in their mouth. Then they’ll scurry to a new location—out of view of their rival—and actually cache the nut there. This may seem like an obvious trick to us, but it points to a type of intelligence that we don’t often afford to non-human mammals. It’s called: Theory of Mind.
According to Wikipedia, “Theory of Mind is the understanding that others have beliefs, desires, intentions, and perspectives that are different from one's own. Possessing a functional theory of mind is considered crucial for success in everyday human social interactions…”
Wow. My little experiment in empathy worked. I suddenly have a lot more respect for the dastardly gray squirrel currently hanging acrobatically from my feeder and gobbling up all of the seeds.
Emily’s award-winning second book, Natural Connections: Dreaming of an Elfin Skimmer, is now available to purchase at www.cablemuseum.org/books. Or order it from our friends at redberybooks.com to receive free shipping!
For more than 50 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. The Museum is closed, but our Mysteries of the Night exhibit is available online. Connect with us on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and cablemuseum.org to keep track of our latest adventures in learning.