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Building a nest egg. Saving for a rainy day. Squirreling it away. Feeding the pig. Four phrases that humans use to describe a human trait also referred to as “deferred gratification.” As suggested by these phrases, humans that practice deferred gratification benefit by setting aside resources in times of abundance so that they are available in times when resources are less plentiful. Also, as several of the names suggest, this is not an exclusively human trait, but can be found throughout the animal world as well.
For animals, the “resource” that is most likely to be saved is food and, as summer becomes fall, natural food resources are at their peak abundance. So, if we wish to see deferred gratification at work in our own backyards, now is the time to do it and this is what to observe. When you think of storing food for winter, squirrels are probably at the top of the list. If you have Gray Squirrels in your backyard, then you probably already have a mental image of them at this time of year with an acorn, or even larger nuts like hickories and walnuts in their mouths, scurrying around and hiding them in tree bark or burying them in the ground where most of them go un-recovered or purloined by other backyard wildlife. Smaller Red Squirrels (also known as pine squirrels) may also be present. Pine Squirrels are much more systematic about maintaining their larders, hoarding them in large caches referred to as “middens”. A Red Squirrel midden is usually located in a secluded place on the ground and is often six or more feet across and can be several feet deep. In addition to nuts and seeds, these middens also contain pine cones, empty shells and other debris collected and left by the Red Squirrels. Chipmunks will also be collecting winter stores, which they will remove and store in their underground homes for a convenient snack when they are roused from their winter slumber on a sunny winter day.
Do birds also store food at this time of year for future use? As you may have guessed, the answer is “Yes”, for many bird species including some of your backyard favorites. Blue Jays and other members of the jay family, like crows, are among the species that participate in food storing. Jays often collect more acorns than they can eat and actually bury the excess in the ground or in a tree crevice for future use, remembering what and where they have hidden their findings. Jays have also been known to recover and re-hide their treasures, if they have observed other animals watching during the initial concealment process. Biologists believe that most of the natural disbursement of oak trees in our area is the result of acorn “planting” by Blue Jays.
Storing and remembering where to find hidden food requires a lot of brain power, so, it is not surprising that biologists rank members of the jay and crow family at the top of the avian intelligence list. You may be surprised that many of your other favorite feeder birds are also food storers. In our area, this list includes titmice, nuthatches, and blackcapped chickadees. According to Cornell University’s All About Birds website, the portion of the chickadee’s brain that is responsible for spatial memory, called the hippocampus, is much larger than other birds its size, and even more remarkable, biologists have measured significant growth in chickadee brain cells during the fall caching season. So, the next time you see a chickadee absconding with a sunflower seed from your feeder, watch to see if it is eaten, or stashed, but don’t let it know you are watching, because chickadees will also relocate their treasures if they think they have been spotted! Better still… snap a picture and post it on our Facebook, or show it to us the next time you visit the Wildlife Garden and receive 20% off your next purchase of Wildlife Critter Mix.
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