By Jay Sames
If you know me, you know I get up early, often before dark—even in summer—and I sit reading on the porch in the twilight. When summer turns to autumn, I hold out as long I can stand, until the layers and hats get too bulky to be comfortable.
Coffee at my elbow, I sit on an old, rickety rocker. I read in the dark, on either my iPad (dim white print on a black screen) or my Kindle (the light turned down, the font larger). I hear night sounds.
It’s quiet around 5 a.m.; there are few cars on Maple at that hour. But as mid-August lapses into late September—when I add socks to my slippers, maybe a sweater—I hear the squirrels gathering acorns for winter.
The squirrels’ Costco is the two giant oaks across the street at Peter and Gussy’s house. Dropping acorns down on the sidewalk and the road makes a thin, sharp, smacking sound. If you walk toward the street, they sense you and stop working. Surely the squirrels work in teams, if only because the trees are so tall. Inspecting the detritus after dawn, you can see that they gnaw whole twigs through, dropping clusters of acorns simultaneously.
Just hearing squirrels in the dark makes me no expert. But the internet tells me that slow-motion films reveal that squirrels shake each acorn to know what to do with it. If weevils are present, they eat it immediately, weevils and all. If not, it’s deemed storable. Squirrels are “scatter hoarders”—storing caches in multiple places—as opposed to “larder hoarders,” e.g., chipmunks, which store them in just one place. A risk/reward balance means that squirrels are more likely to have their caches raided, without losing everything.
But distributing acorns in multiple caches means they lose a lot of them. According to a University of Richmond (VA) study, squirrels forget to retrieve about 74% of the seeds they store. But they have a system. They store lesser quality acorns closer to the tree, and prime acorns up to 200 feet away. Farther caches are less likely found by raiders. But the squirrels themselves are at risk by predators, like hawks, when retrieving the farther caches.
How much do squirrels store? Apparently a single squirrel eats about a pound per week. You do the math.
Sitting on the porch, I know that squirrel collections precede migrating geese; when I hear the squirrels, the honking north-to-south V’s will start soon. Sometime around Labour Day, I usually remember to tell Peter and Gussy, as I did in a dawn text this year: “The tag-team squirrels were busy this morning—winter is coming.”