'Field Notes:' How Red Squirrels Store Food For The Winter

Mar 5, 2018

Not long ago I was out hiking in the mountains during one glowing afternoon. I turned off the trail and headed into the woods in search of a comfortable place to nestle down and daydream. As I found a spot for myself a red squirrel came bounding toward me on a fallen log. It jumped onto the trunk of a ponderosa pine and gave me that bright-eyed stare accompanied by several swishes of its feathery tail. Then it headed up the tree and disappeared among the high branches. I'd been sitting in a peaceful reverie for only a minute when suddenly a pine cone came crashing to the ground just a couple of feet away. I looked up and saw two more falling. The squirrel was attacking me!

I jumped up to avoid the pine cone bombs. Ha! 'Very clever,' I shouted toward the treetop. So this is how you squirrels taunt and annoy bigger animals who might be a threat? But no. Here came the squirrel back down the tree. It rushed over to one of the fallen pine cones, picked it up, and bounded into the underbrush. Obviously the squirrel wasn't concerned with me it was concerned with its winter food supply.

Squirrels don't hibernate, so they need a readily available source of food throughout the winter in the fall. There's a narrow window of four to six weeks in which pine, spruce and fir cones are mature and the seeds are fully developed.

Squirrels cut these cones from the trees and cache them in middens which you've probably noticed in the forest before. An established midden is a big mound of cone bracts and uneaten cone parts from previous winters. A midden can be 30 feet wide and have a 12 inch deep layer of cone pieces. These piles make an excellent moist storage space for the seasons harvest.

Squirrels pack cones tightly into holes and depressions dug into the middens like canning pickles. A successful harvest can result in the storage of many thousands of cones.

Red squirrels are highly territorial. In order to ensure that they have access to enough food sources for survival, especially in the fall, they'll frequently make their chattering call to establish the boundaries of their domain. Middens are usually found in the middle of a squirrel's territory, which can be about 1 to 4 acres, unless a bear comes along with its own agenda of survival and digs into a midden for a feast of cone seeds.

An energetic red squirrel — and I've yet to see one that isn't — who has spent the fall harvesting will be able to survive the coming winter enjoying the seeds of its labor.

"Field Notes" is produced by the Montana Natural History Center.

(Broadcast: "Field Notes." Listen on air or online Sundays at 12:55 p.m., Tuesdays at 4:54 p.m., and Fridays at 4:54 p.m., or via podcast.)