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Ask the Squirrelologist: Protecting Your Cache

Ask the Squirrelologist: Protecting Your Cache

By Vince Mancuso, StorageUnit.com

Dr. Phil MyersStorageUnit.com is here again with Dr. Phil Myers for another edition of “Ask the Squirrelologist” to give tribute to our beloved mascot, Hazel the Squirrel. Myers currently serves as Professor Emeritus of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and Curator Emeritus of Mammals at the University of Michigan. He is also one of the brilliant minds behind Animal Diversity Web, a site dedicated to giving information about all sorts of animals—including 95 species of squirrels!

In our last interview, we spoke on what squirrels store and how much space they use when storing. This time, we’ll take a look how squirrels protect their belongings.

 

Hello, Dr. Myers. Hope all is well in Michigan. Seen any of our furry friends out and about this winter?

Just the usual gray, fox, and red squirrels that are common in my area (Michigan). We saw a few chipmunks foraging on a warm day in December, but they’re under the snow now, as are our groundhogs and ground squirrels. Flying squirrels might be out and about, but I haven’t seen any.

Speaking of winter, and we’ve talked about it before, but what exactly do squirrels do to protect their food sources over the winter? Do chipmunk burrows protect against cold? How?

Earth is good insulation, so yes, being underground protects chipmunks from cold. And if there’s snow on the ground, so much the better—snow also is very good insulation. Cold wouldn’t affect their food very much; their stores are primarily seeds, which should keep well whether frozen or not.

squirrel with stored nutsWhat about scatter hoarders like the fox squirrel? How do they keep their food from freezing?

They don’t. A frozen acorn or hickory nut is just as edible as a thawed one. In fact, it may keep better when frozen.

Sounds like their stores really wouldn’t benefit from a climate control feature, but while we’re on the topic, how do the squirrels themselves stay warm?

The tree-dwellers construct good nests that insulate them. The ground-dwellers are in their burrows, which, as described above, provide great insulation. In addition to being in well-protected burrows, hibernators burn fat during the winter months to keep themselves alive; that’s why groundhogs or ground squirrels become so obese during the fall months. Flying squirrels appear to live in groups during the winter and they undoubtedly huddle with one another to keep warm. Solitary squirrels curl into balls to reduce their surface area. And of course all squirrels have fur, which is excellent insulation.

As we can see from the squirrels, sometimes it’s not protection from the cold or weather we need. Is it common for squirrels or other rodents to steal from each other?

Probably, but I don’t think we really know how often this happens. Certainly chipmunks and ground squirrels are very aggressive around their burrows, although that may have to do more with protecting babies than protecting food.

chipmunk at burrow entranceDo chipmunks have any sort of covering over their burrow entrances?

Burrow entrances are concealed among leaves, but they’re not plugged. Some other rodents, for example pocket gophers, plug their burrow entrances, presumably to exclude snakes and probably to help maintain high humidity in the burrows.

Sounds like a locked door with gated access would be more beneficial. Is there any additional security inside the burrow?

Other than an aggressive animal with big teeth? I can’t think of anything.

In the past, you’ve mentioned red squirrels storing food in large piles of pine cone bracts. How does that protect the cache?

Burying them in large piles of bracts makes them hard for a thief to find. Some of these piles can be a couple of feet high and several feet in diameter, so a thief would have to do a lot of digging to find the cones.

squirrel in winter snowAre there any other methods scatter hoarders take to protect their stores, like video surveillance?

Other than burying them, not that I know of. Of course the fact that the items are buried one at a time means that a thief would have to spend considerable time and energy to find more than a few items. Squirrels often cache hundreds or thousands of seeds; the large number itself provides some protection in that it makes it unlikely that thieves will get them all.

 

What happens to squirrels who don’t take steps to protect their food stores?

They were eliminated by natural selection long ago!

Thankfully for humans, failing to protect our storage is far less fatal—though potentially still heartbreaking. Another thing we can be thankful for is the protection options we can use in a self storage unit, like climate control and a variety of security features, like unit alarms, coded access, and video surveillance. I guess chipmunks act as their own on-site managers!

A big thanks to you, Dr. Myers, for always providing us with your insight in the study of squirrelology.

If you’re searching for the best way to protect your items in storage, be sure to visit StorageUnit.com. We help you determine exactly what features you need in a storage unit.