Nature’s Rewards Column – Squirrels are no dummies


Squirrels are no dummies

My students have been studying wildlife management in my Natural Resources class, and the other day I summoned the kids outside to see who could find a pecan to eat. There is a large tree behind my building that is loaded with nuts every fall.

Students combed the grass under the canopy picking up dozens of pecans. I asked them to crack some open to show me. Only a few knew how to do this by placing two in their palm and squeezing. The part they didn’t expect was that although the ground was littered with nuts, none were any good. A few of the taller boys had to shake some from the tree before we could find any that were acceptable. I was surprised we even found any then, in light of recent winds that cleaned many trees of their tasty morsels.

Why did we not find any quality nuts on the ground? Eastern gray squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis) are very prolific on the Northeastern High School campus. Squirrels rely on nut collecting skills to sustain them throughout the winter. They scour the area on a regular basis and know which nuts are sweet. They leave the bad ones.

I see these bushy tailed rodents every day carting the pecans off. They bury them all over the place. Contrary to popular belief, squirrels do not find buried nuts by memory but by their highly developed sense of smell. Not all hidden nuts will be found though. Some will germinate and grow into new trees. Because of their keen sense of smell, these squirrels could sift through the numerous bad pecans in order to secure the good ones with much less effort than my students.

Did the squirrels make any mistakes? They made a few. Some of the inedible nuts were chewed on, meaning they tried some and found the nuts were dried up. Generally, gray squirrels don’t make a habit out of misjudging nuts.

I asked my class why pecan trees at my home have plenty of edible nuts under them even though numerous squirrels live in my neighborhood. This might have gone unanswered, but my daughter is in that class. She knows we have cats in our yard, two of our own and God knows how many others frequent the area and eat from their bowl. Squirrels keep their distance from cats.

This relationship between predators, prey, and producers must be in balance or populations will shift. Should squirrels continue to flourish on the campus we will likely see an increase in hawks, foxes, snakes and feral cats unless we run out of food for the squirrels. It’s possible they could migrate elsewhere and maybe raid bird feeders or lose their reproductive vigor and become more susceptible to parasites.

As for their ability to find prime pecans, skills of gray squirrels are unmatched. Your best bet to find plenty of tasty pecans in a squirrel infested neighborhood is to check the trees regularly when the nuts start falling. Try going early in the morning after a windy night.

Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School

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About tedmanzer

I grew up in Old Town Maine and got a B.S. at the University of Maine in Plant Sciences/ minor in Botany. From there I moved to West Virginia and earned a M.S. in Agronomy at WVU. I also met my wife there. She grew up in rural WV as the daughter of tenant farmers who raised cattle and hogs. Their lifestyle at times was one of subsistence and I learned a lot from them. I've always been a foraging buff, but combining my formal botanical knowledge with their practical 'Foxfire-type' background opened up my eyes a little more. I now teach agriculture to high school students at Northeastern High School in Elizabeth City, NC. My wife teaches with me and we make a great team. I also write a weekly nature/foraging column for the local paper (dailyadvance.com) and frequently publish articles in several other newspapers in northeastern North Carolina. I also have written several Christian nature/adventure novels that I plan to publish eventually. One is a five book family saga I call the 'Forgotten Virtues' series. In the first book, Never Alone, a young boy comes of age after his father dies in a plane crash, and he has to make it alone. Never Alone is now available in paperback, Kindle and Nook. The second book, Strange Courage, takes Carl from his High School graduation to his recovery from a nasty divorce. The third book, Second Chances, takes Carl from his ex-wife's death and the custody of his son to his heroic death at age 59. The fourth book, Promises Kept, depicts how his grandchildren react and adjust to his death. In the final book, Grandfather's Way, his youngest and most timid granddaughter emerges from the shadow of her overachieving family and accomplishes more in four months than most do in a lifetime. I use many foraging references with a lot of the plants I profile in these articles in those books.
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