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MAKING SQUIRRELY DECISIONS

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Regular readers of this column know I am a big fan
of squirrels. For several years now my husband and I
have been feeding squirrels at a local park on a regular
basis. We have learned a lot about these little
critters just by observation. Feeding them regularly
hasn’t hurt either. For instance, we have learned that
squirrels learn by repetition. If we show up regularly
and make the same sounds each time, they quickly
learn to trust us and come to us for treats.
But what puzzled us was why our furry little friends
would proceed to rotate a pecan between their paws
as if examining it. Fortunately a recent article in the
large daily paper just north of us cleared up that mystery
for me. Squirrels, it seems, are using their brains
to analyze a variety of factors before deciding whether
to eat the nut or store it. Researchers at the University
of California Berkeley studied squirrels and discovered
these furry critters consider several possible
decisions as to whether they will keep the food they
find or store it for later consumption. So when you
see them twirling a nut in their paws, they are actually
accessing the perishability as well as the nutritional
value of their snack plus considering other possible
nearby competitors and how much food is available
to them at that time. (And we thought they were just
twiddling their thumbs.)
Storing food (called caching)is crucial for squirrels
when food is hard to come by. Researchers have discovered
that they have two strategies: larder hoarding
and scatter hoarding. Those who use larder hoarding
store large amounts of food in one place that they
are able to defend. Squirrels who do scatter hoarding
hide their food in various places. One researcher
likened the scatter hoarding approach to not putting
all your eggs in one basket.
Who knew squirrels are such smart animals? Or,
for that matter, that they are hoarders? Maybe one
day they’ll have their own reality TV show. A television
network could call it “Squirrely Hoarders.” The
program’s opening shot would be of a squirrel in its
nest surrounded by a bunch of discarded nutshells.
Think of the ratings the series might get!
If you would like to hear more about this recent research
project, google Laura Shields’ article in the
Mercury News (San Jose) or UCLA Berkeley squirrel
research project. Or do what I do – just ask Siri about
it. Siri is even smarter than a squirrel, but for goodness
sake, DON’T tell the squirrels I said that!

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