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During the eighties, extensive experiments were completed to try and establish exactly how squirrels remembered where they left their food stashes. Did they remember? How did they remember? What did they use to help remind them of the location?
Memory does play a big part in helping squirrels reunite with their hoards, but there are other factors at play too. Odor, for example, can help a squirrel to find where it left food. Urine scents, as well as scent marking, will help the animal find it’s way back “home” so to speak. They also use the same process to help lead them right back to where they can find sustenance should they need it. Where odor and memory doesn’t work, landmarks will help to guide the way, although they aren’t quite the landmarks you’re thinking of.
No, the squirrel does not walk to the Empire State building and then three steps to the left, but their nut-finding journey does work in pretty much the same way. The squirrel will remember a certain tree, for example, giving them a broad indication of where the food stash is.
There are other factors too, such as what species of squirrel you’re talking about, as well as where in the world the squirrel is from. North American red squirrels, for example, have a central location point where they stash the good stuff for winter, and this “midden” (as it is called) will be somewhere in their territory, making it easy to access. What the squirrel does is build a larder, either in the forks of branches or under leaves. When the winter comes and food supplies are low, the squirrel will have an easy time remembering that one central storage point. Douglas squirrels are also known to do the same thing.
Other squirrels do not work in the same way. There are some species that have a “eat later” pile. This won’t be a larder, but rather a doggy bag. They fully intend to eat the food they have stashed a short while into the future, rather than storing a whole bunch of foods to help see them through the cold months. The African tree squirrel is known to do this, usually scattered around hollows in tree branches. It would be harder for these squirrels to remember every space they leave their nuts in, having more of them dotted around. However, at the same time, where there are more stashes on offer, it doesn’t matter if you forget. There will be another one close by.
Of course, squirrels don’t remember all the nuts, seeds and other delights they have stashed, and some of them will even change by the time they have come back for them. Seeds, for example, can easily sprout and grow roots, so by the time the squirrel comes back to eat it, a tree will have started to grow right on the spot where there once was a food stash. Of course, more trees can only be a good thing, but when that tree has started to grow from a seed you would have wanted to eat, we can imagine it could be quite confusing. And also quite frustrating!
For more information, you may want to click on one of these guides that I wrote:
How much does squirrel removal cost? - get the lowdown on prices.
How to get rid of squirrels - my main squirrel removal info guide.
Example squirrel trapping photographs - get do-it-yourself ideas.
Squirrel job blog - learn from great examples of squirrel jobs I've done.
squirrels in the attic
Are squirrels herbivores? What do they eat?
Do more squirrels live in urban areas, or wild areas?