By Terry W. Johnson
There was a time in the not too distant past when most folks would store a bounty of homegrown foods for the winter. These days most of us have abandoned this practice, preferring instead to head to the local grocery store whenever we need to restock our pantries. A number of our wildlife neighbors aren't so fortunate, though. They resort to hoarding food to sustain them throughout winter.
For many wildlife species, autumn provides a cornucopia packed with a seemingly endless supply of food. In fact, for animals that eat fruits, berries and seeds, food is more abundant in fall than at any other time of the year. As winter approaches, however, this bounty rapidly disappears. By late February, many of the foods that seemed inexhaustible a few weeks before are extremely difficult to find.
For weeks now, I have been watching a number of my backyard neighbors storing food that will help them survive even the harshest of winters. Let's take a peek at the food caching habits of four mammals that are common backyard inhabitants in the Peach State.
One of the most fascinating of these hoarders is the flying squirrel. Actually, two species of flying squirrels are found in Georgia. The northern flying squirrel's range extends only into the northeast corner of the state. In comparison, the smaller southern flying squirrel is found in all 159 counties. Since these critters are nocturnal, most homeowners rarely see them.
Flying squirrels store a variety of seeds. They prefer hickory nuts, and acorns (particularly white oak). They are also fond of sunflower seeds. It is believed that a flying squirrel can store several hundred acorns and other seeds in a single night, and 15,000 or more in a year. This hard-shelled bounty is cached in their nests, tree cavities, cracks in trees and the crotches of limbs. These tiny squirrels will even bury seeds in the ground.
The white-footed mouse is another nocturnal hoarder. This attractive rodent stores a wide variety of foods. White-footed mice are particularly fond of cherry seeds but will also store hickory, conifer, basswood, raspberry, viburnum and jewelweed seeds. Beechnuts are another favorite. A biologist once discovered a white-footed mouse's cache of almost a peck of beechnuts hidden in a hollow tree. In another instance, several quarts of tiny clover seeds were found.
Not being particular about where they conceal seeds, industrious white-footed mice have set up larders in boots, milk bottles and teakettles.
The hoarding habits of the gray squirrel have been well documented, too. Cartoons often depict squirrels storing nuts in hollow trees. In truth, while gray squirrels will stash nuts in cavities, they are what biologists term a scatter hoarder. Gray squirrels most often bury seeds in the ground, putting up to three seeds in each Â¼- to inch-deep hole. A gray squirrel can bury upwards of 25 nuts in a half-hour. Each squirrel maintains about 1,000 caches at a time and stores about 10,000 seeds and nuts a year.
While it is popularly believed that squirrels recover all of the seeds they bury, in truth they don't. Gray squirrels typically relocate from 50 to 85 percent of their hidden treasures. It is thought that they locate the stored nuts by smell. As such, they often retrieve nuts stored by their neighbors.
Although gray squirrels are particularly fond of acorns, other seeds stored include honey locust, pecan and chestnut.
One of the most energetic hoarders in your backyard is the eastern chipmunk. Chipmunks store food throughout the year. However, this animal's urge to save reaches a higher level in late summer and fall. At this time of the year, more often than not when you see a chipmunk it is scampering toward a burrow, its cheek pouches bulging grotesquely.
Chipmunks can carry an amazing amount of food in these elastic pouches. They can haul 32 beechnuts, 145 grains of wheat, 31 kernels of corn, seven acorns or 70 sunflower seeds in its cheek pouches at one time!
Consequently, it isn't unusual for a chipmunk to store 900 acorns in a single day. A biologist once observed a chipmunk stash a quart of chestnuts and five quarts of hickory nuts in only three days.
Remarkably, chipmunks don't cache any foods that spoil quickly. Although they often dine on peanuts and peanut butter at our backyard bird feeders, they will not hoard these oily foods.
If you could somehow peer into a chipmunk burrow, you would find that chipmunks often spend the winter perched atop a half-bushel or more of acorns, cherry pits, hickory nuts and other seeds. Although the chipmunk might sleep through the coldest days of winter, when it does awake, it has no trouble finding dinner.
If you happen across the food stores of one of these fascinating critters as you go about your fall chores, leave the cache alone. Without it, the animal that spent countless hours gathering this bounty may not have enough food to make it through the long winter.
Terry Johnson is a former Nongame program manager with the Georgia Wildlife Resources Division, a noted backyard wildlife writer and expert, and executive director of TERN, the friends group for Wildlife Resources Nongame Conservation Section.