When I was growing up in Kentucky I always had a ton of fun watching the chipmunks grabbing bird seed that had spilled from the feeders. These little guys are the smallest member of the squirrel family and share a lot of behaviors with their larger cousins, the grey and red squirrels.
Tree squirrels do not hibernate to get through the winter and instead rely upon stored food to get through the winter. However, most chipmunks perform a modified form of hibernation which made me wonder if they go through the trouble of storing up winter food caches.
So, the question of the day is, “Do chipmunks bury nuts?”
It turns out that chipmunks are light sleepers during their hibernation and wake up every few days to eat. In order to make it through the winters then, chipmunks bury nuts in the summer and fall to have adequate food sources.
It turns out that how chipmunks store their food is pretty interesting. Let’s use ourselves as an example. When we talk about you storing enough food to get you through winter which of the following strategies do you think you will follow?
- Store all the food items at your home only
- Keep some food items safe at your home and store others at your office or a relative’s or friend’s house
There’s no right or wrong answer, of course – it’s all about your nature and preferences. We just want you to know that when chipmunks bury nuts, they also think in a similar manner.
Types of Hoarders in Chipmunks
Some chipmunks like to put all the eggs in one basket, meaning they stockpile the nuts and seeds in one cache only. These larder hoarders then focus on defending it. However, according to the BBC, about 50 percent of the nuts stored by them end up being stolen by other chipmunks.
On the other hand, some of these little creatures are scatter hoarders. They bury nuts in multiple small caches throughout the summer season. And they don’t do it randomly. To make it easy for themselves to recover those food stores, they take a strategic approach to burying nuts.
Let’s dive in to discover how they go about it!
Strategies of Scatter Hoarders
Quite interestingly, chipmunks’ cheeks are like massive grocery bags that can stretch up to three times larger than their head!
During the summer season, these rodents collect nuts and fill them up in their cheeks. Once they’re stuffed full, they carry the nuts to the cache and bury them for the winters.
This nut-burying habit of chipmunks makes them extremely industrious. You may be surprised to hear that yellow-pine chipmunks can collect as many as 68,000 items and bury them in hundreds and thousands of caches for a single winter. Needless to say, they look super cute running around with their cheeks full of nuts and seeds and burying them.
Deciding Suitable Locations
Chipmunks are smart creatures in a way that they know how important it is to store their food at suitable locations.
Researchers were interested in knowing how far chipmunks are generally willing to go from the source of food before they cache the items. They also wanted to see the average distance between different caches. Of course, chipmunks want to ensure maximum efficiency for when they’ll have to restore the food items while also making sure there’s enough distance between the caches. They don’t want their competitors to find multiple caches in a single area!
Deceiving the Competitors
Competition alert: ‘Another chipmunk is watching me bury nuts. It might come later and steal all of my food.’ That’s what these smart little creatures notice while hiding their food. When they smell competition, they know they have to adjust the caching.
Spotting a chipmunk in the area means a change in the frequency of caching or the location of caches. Some chipmunks may even decide not to cache at all! And then some will create ‘false’ caches to deceive the competitors. They dig up caches to either fill them with stones or cover them empty.
Deciding Which Nuts Are Worth Caching
Just as you would check the expiry date before stocking up food items at your home, chipmunks also decide which nuts are worth caching.
When they find a small seed that looks like it is going to sprout soon, they know it is better to eat it right then and there instead of storing it for future use.
Researchers suggest that the reason why a chipmunk may decide to eat or store the nuts may depend on the abundance of the food item, the long-term storage and nutritional value of the nuts, or the time required to eat it.
Typically, if a food item takes more time to eat than to be carried and buried, it goes in the cache!
Moving to a Better Location
To protect the stored nuts from being stolen by the competitors, chipmunks may revisit a cache, dig the seeds up, and carry them to another spot that’s safer and is farther away.
Relocating the Caches to Satisfy Their Hunger
When it’s wintertime and there are no seeds on the ground, it’s time for the chipmunks to dig up their caches and munch on the stored nuts and seeds. After all, that’s exactly why they have been hoarding the entire summer and fall season! Generally, a yellow-pine chipmunk hibernates in the winter season but they do wake up every 5-7 days to eat and fuel up.
Never Say No to More Food!
Oftentimes, when chipmunks are busy digging up caches to resupply their metabolism during winters, they come across some nuts and seeds buried by their competitors. More food is always good. No matter who buried it there, the one who finds it gets to eat it!
Interestingly, chipmunks can use their sniffing power and other searching skills to locate their competitors’ caches and attack!
Not All Buried Nuts and Seeds are Relocated
Sometimes, chipmunks end up forgetting where they buried the rest of their nuts and seeds. If memory doesn’t help, they use their sense of smell to locate their own and other animals’ caches. This especially works when there is moisture. Nevertheless, chipmunks may end up leaving many seeds buried in the ground, which wait until the spring season to germinate and regenerate the forest. This means more food for the chipmunks for upcoming winters!
Now if someone asks you if or how chipmunks bury nuts, you’ll know how to answer! If you were to find and bury nuts like chipmunks, which strategy do you think you would prefer? We’d love to know how many larder hoarders and scatter hoarders we have here!