Perhaps it’s just me thinking it, but the squirrels around my place have been acting, well, a little nutty lately.
Whether fox or gray, young or old, semi-domesticated and demanding that our bird feeders be filled, or on their own far down into the woods, I am seeing a lot of squirrels this year, and they’ve sometimes acted a bit daft, particularly in relation to one of their main staples, black walnuts.
It’s said — although probably without merit — that although very intelligent, squirrels often forget where they’ve left the food they’ve worked so hard to accumulate. They sometimes spend a good portion of their day wandering about searching and digging in spots they believe they’ve left hastily buried walnuts or acorns or birdseed. Nature’s equivalent of rubbernecking a parking lot for one’s car, I suppose.
I often find places in my woods where the snow or leaves are scratched bare by squirrels who have either mined for what was left by others, or were interrupted in the process of leaving something for themselves. Deer have been known to rob squirrel stockpiles, too.
Weirdest of all this winter, however, have been the walnuts I’ve noticed left in peculiar places, as if our squirrels — and we have plenty — are either getting more careless, or have become preoccupied with a pesky hawk that has come to call our yard home in recent months. Perhaps, the squirrels are simply finding so much food that they’ve grown careless with it, like bushy-tailed spendthrifts.
Just the other day, I walked out the cabin door and noticed a hulled walnut on my porch rail atop the bracket where a rain gauge sits in warm weather. I decided to leave it, hoping to watch a squirrel retrieve the snack as I sit at my desk. The nut sat there for a few days, then simply vanished one night.
Later that same week, I found another walnut, this one still in its leathery hull, delicately balanced on the roof of a small butterfly house in a garden near our barn. It was in broad daylight, made available like an offering at a food pantry. That nut, too, sat in place for a few days before disappearing.
I thought the trend was perhaps the peculiarity of one eccentric squirrel, that is until I brought the mail to the house a day later. As I stepped from our driveway toward the front door, I spied a walnut, this one hulled, sitting in the fork of three wispy lilac bush branches. I couldn’t imagine a squirrel of any size being light enough to climb there, and even considered that the nut had been dropped from the roof of our house.
But most of the behavior that I find bizarre may not be so at all. According to Indiana State University’s Dr. Joy O’Keefe, whose interests lie in wildlife management and conservation biology — particularly, bats — squirrels “strike a balance between two types of seed storage: larder hoarding and scatter hoarding.”
O’Keefe says that I am probably seeing a year when our squirrels seem to be involved in both behaviors.
“Larder hoarding, or caching larger amounts of seeds, means the animal has to defend the cache against competitors and may have to worry about pests or fungi ruining it. Scatter hoarding, or burying and hiding small numbers of seeds at greater distances away from the source, reduces the likelihood that a competitor will find the seeds, but means the animal has to memorize or smell out the location later.”
“There’s been some work addressing whether squirrels use memory or olfactory clues to find stored nuts. Apparently it is a little of both. But putting nuts or other food in obscure places like tree branches and gutters suggests that the squirrels that did it have memorized the location and are counting on other squirrels not finding the food through olfactory or visual cues,” O’Keefe adds.
Amid the series of weird walnut sightings came an encounter with a fox squirrel in our woods. Out and about on one of our unusually warm days early in the month, I saw a fox squirrel jumping from tree to tree, not running from me, but accompanying me, interested, curious as to why I was there and what I was doing.
Had I been seen, perhaps I would have been the one to appear a bit balmy, for I started to carry on a one-sided conversation with it as it inched nearer. He eventually came so close, I believe I could have fed it by hand, knowing that in some public places squirrels — like pigeons and geese — come to expect handouts from strangers. But this was no city park squirrel, and although I snapped his picture and came within what I thought a prudent distance — considering what its teeth are capable of — I, not he, decided to move on.
I have written about squirrels before, particularly a series of nearly supernatural invasions and migrations of them in our territorial days of 1811. It was theorized that unusual solar activity and earthquakes that year motivated the squirrels to lose their fear of humans and to move in great numbers; it happened again in a few other years up to 1845. I am presuming that nothing of that sort is occurring now, nor are my squirrels simply giddy about “National Squirrel Appreciation Day,” which otherwise was celebrated with little fanfare last week (it’s on Jan. 21, if you intend to make plans for next year).
According to facts I found at onekindplanet.org, a website that encourages humanity to live more “animal-kind” lives, squirrels have been observed making “bogus food-burying displays to deceive onlookers.” So, perhaps, all I have on my hands is one pretty sharp squirrel that has decided to play with my head, watching me from one of our maples as I discover the walnuts he’s left.
I went a few days last week and failed to stumble across a single suspicious walnut, and despite a half-dozen trips back to the spot where I met my new friend, he has proven it to be only a chance encounter. I decided that the trend had ended.
Yet during one of my most mundane chores — the cleaning of my gutters just before a big rain — I came across a walnut that had been tucked between a downspout and the side of our storage barn. The squirrel that put it there would have literally had to have hung by its back legs, and I still wonder why it chose that particular spot.
I didn’t move it, though; there’s a friend relying on it being there when he needs it.