Prepping For Winter

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November came in like a lamb—with a string of warm days including several hitting the 70 degrees mark—and out like a lamb with three consecutive sunny days in the 60s around Thanksgiving. Although below freezing temps were recorded at the Brookhaven National Lab station on four occasions this month, overall it was a mild November with an average temperature of 50 degrees, five degrees above normal for the area.This is the season when many of us make preparations for winter: unhooking, emptying and storing garden hoses, shutting off and winterizing outdoor showers, putting away outdoor furniture, making sure the furnace is running properly, getting wood split and stacked for the wood stove or fireplace, pulling winter clothing out of storage and, for some, getting the boat covered and sails and outboard stowed properly.

November is also a time for many of our resident, non-migratory wildlife species to prepare for the winter months. The chores are different but the goals are much the same: sprucing up winter quarters to keep warm and safe.

This was a big mast year, and many of our mast-eaters are fattening up on acorns, beech and hickory nuts. These include mice, chipmunks, squirrels, turkeys, and deer. I’ve noticed that the chipmunks residing in my yard are more often seen scurrying about with cheeks crammed full of acorns this month, rather than eating them from their feeding perches.

Our local chipmunk, the eastern chipmunk (Tamias striatus) is one of several “hoarders” that cache food during the fall for consumption during the winter months. Their ability to cram seeds and nuts into their expandable cheek pouches is quite amazing, and very comical to view as they dash about. One of my references states that as many as seventy sunflower seeds (unshelled) can be carried by a chipmunk. And there’s an online photo of a chipmunk’s cheeks bulging with five whole (unshelled) peanuts inside!

Naturalist John Burroughs once documented the amount of food stored by a single chipmunk over a three-day period. The total came to one bushel (9.3 gallons) of nuts and seeds, much more than it could possibly consume in even a very long winter.

Hoarders are further classified as “larderers” and “scatterers,” two different strategies for storing and protecting winter food caches. Gray squirrels are scatterers, as they do not cache all their nuts in one basket, but bury them here and there in the leaf litter or turf singly, and apparently relocate these caches, even under the snow, by scent later on. This strategy avoids the problem of having your sole winter cache discovered and pilfered by, say, a flock of wild turkeys or a small herd of white-tailed deer.

Larders cache all their food in one big pile, usually a spot that is well hidden and easily defended against pilfering, such as in an underground den or tree cavity. A good example of a larderer is the beaver. The one that resided briefly in East Hampton between 2006 and 2012 created a stash of winter food in the form of select branches anchored securely to the muddy pond bottom just outside its lodge where it could easily access it under the winter ice and swim back to the lodge to gnaw away.

As is often the case with categorizing things, many species do not neatly fit into one or the other box. Eastern chipmunks and southern flying squirrels create large caches in their underground dens (chipmunks) and cavity nests (flying squirrels) but they both also make smaller caches in the immediate area around their winter quarters.

Another interesting note on the scatter-hoarding practiced by gray squirrels involves differentiating between acorns of the white oaks (e.g. white, swamp white, post) and that of the red oak group (e.g. black, red, scarlet). White oak acorns have less tannin, making them more palatable than red oak acorns, and sprout in the fall soon after dropping to the ground, making them less desirable to store for later consumption (sprouting reduces the amount of energy that can be obtained from the nut).

As a result, where both types of oaks are available, squirrels will preferentially fatten up on white oak acorns in the fall, and store red oak acorns for winter consumption. The tannins slowly dissipate and become more palatable over time while in storage. Where white oaks dominate and there are not enough red oak acorns for winter storage, gray squirrels will bite off the seed embryo on the white oak acorns before caching them to prevent germination.

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