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Northland Nature: Gray squirrels dig into their food caches

A gray squirrel digs through the snow on a January day to find and eat acorns that were buried in its cache last fall. Photo by Larry Weber

The snowpack in the woods is from 8-10 inches deep and it has been here without any additional snow for a couple of weeks.

This snowpack has undergone some changes as the temperature has fluctuated from the forties to less than zero. At sites, the snow is very crunchy. I see lots of animal tracks out here in the woods, but I do not see much variety.

By far, most of these tracks are those of deer. They step through the snow cover, crusty or not, and show plenty of wandering during these January days and nights. Their hooves and body weight cause them to sink through the snow with each step, but I find that in some locations, the crusty snow even holds up deer.

Signs of deer go beyond that of tracks and I find the black pellets of their droppings often. At a few selected sites, I also see where the deer had stopped and bedded down. Their body heat melts the snow all the way to the ground. A few other animals have left their tracks that reveal their activity as well. Not sinking as much in the snow are the marks left by squirrels, hare and turkeys and even some canines.

At one place, I pass a tree that has been used by a pileated woodpecker as it dug for insect larvae within. The nearby ground is scattered with shavings and pieces of wood revealing this large woodpecker delving into the world of the larvae.

Since the snow has been here for a while, plenty of other things appear as well. I see the leaves of three of our deciduous trees that mostly keep their leaves all winter. A few curled, brown, dead leaves, recently fallen, of ironwood, sugar maple and red oak are easy to see on the white color of the snowpack.

Under a few conifers, I also find fallen needles. There are the long pairs of red pine, short blunt ones of balsam and sharp spruce needles. Small seeds have fallen from alder cones while larger ones from basswoods are here, too.

But as I walk in the woods on this January day, what intrigues me the most are the numerous diggings in the snow done by gray squirrels.

Over the last couple of weeks, the local gray squirrels have been moving about and digging through the snow in an attempt to retrieve acorns that were put here last fall. These caches of acorns were buried to help the hunger of winter. I remember a pretty good acorn crop during the days of September. But for me, it was just a seasonal phenomenon of the red oaks.

For the squirrels, it was a food supply to help in the cold times. Unlike red squirrels that cache a huge amount in just one site, grays place just a couple of acorns in shallow holes under the fallen leaves. With a memory or a sense of smell going beyond most of us, they now come back to reclaim this potential food.

From the looks of the cache diggings that I find, they appear to remember well. Surrounding the 4- to 6-inch hole in the snow leading to the cache are shells of acorns. Apparently, the squirrels were hungry enough to crack and eat the stored acorns on site.

They may appear to live on nothing but the seeds that many of us put out for birds, but these dozens of caches tell more of the wintering of gray squirrels.

Larry Weber

Retired teacher Larry Weber, a Barnum resident, is the author of several books, including “Butterflies of the North Woods,” “Spiders of the North Woods,” “Webwood” and “In a Patch of Goldenrods.” Contact him c/o Katie Rohman at krohman@duluthnews.com. 

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