When you are hungry and open your cold refrigerator, what do you see? Maybe fruits, vegetables, milk, leftovers from last night’s dinner and jars of jam and pickles. If none of that is what you crave, you search the boxes, bags and cans of food in a cabinet instead. Humans no longer rely on day-by-day hunting and gathering of food for survival. We don’t even have to go the grocery store very often if we don’t want to. Over time we have discovered many ways to keep food fresh for long periods of time — freezing, drying, canning and pasteurizing are just a few examples.
But what about animals? They need food to survive too, but of course they don’t have refrigerators, cabinets or stores. Are they still able to store food for later?
Most animals hunt for food day by day or even meal by meal. They eat when they are hungry and eat extra when more food is available and store it as fat in their bodies. But some animals use clever strategies to store the food they find now so they can eat it later.
If we think about animals that store food, the first one that usually come to mind is squirrels. Squirrels’ habit of burying acorns and other seeds and nuts is so well-known that there’s even a saying for when people save something. They are “squirreling it away for later.” Is there anything you are squirreling away right now?
Squirrels do what’s called scatter hoarding. They don’t keep everything in one spot. Instead, they dig hundreds, or even thousands, of hiding spots. Sometimes they even dig fake holes or move acorns to new holes just to trick other animals — or other squirrels! They don’t want to share the food they worked hard to find and bury. Would you?
Chipmunks hoard nuts and seeds like squirrels. But instead of scattering them around in lots of different holes, chipmunks store them all together in the underground burrow where they live. A burrow can have more than one room. There can be one room for sleeping, a different one for storing food (called a larder) and sometimes even one for going to the bathroom. Does that sound like your home?
Words to know
Burrow: A hole or tunnel dug by an animal.
Hoard: To amass and hide or store away.
Larder: A room or compartment for storing food.
Pasteurize: To subject products to a process of partial sterilization to make it safe for consumption.
Chipmunks sleep through most of the winter, but they do wake up to eat. Storing their food stash all together means that chipmunks can wake up and eat without having to leave their burrow, keeping them safe from cold weather and predators.
Chipmunks aren’t the only animals that hoard their food in an underground larder — groundhogs, mice and even some ants do too!
Most seed- and nut-eating birds just eat their fill without thinking about their next meal, but not all. Chickadees, nuthatches, titmice, blue jays, crows and some woodpeckers plan ahead. They scatter hoard, like squirrels, but instead of burying their extra seeds and nuts, they tuck them away in different nooks and crannies. Where would be a good spot for a bird to hide seeds? Maybe under loose bark or in the knothole or crevice of a tree. Maybe even in the gaps of a chimney or siding of a building!
These birds can hide hundreds to thousands of seeds — and then remember where most of them are! They may go back to eat the hidden seeds later that same day or keep them as a dependable food source in winter.
Nuts and seeds can last for a long time if they are stored properly. But what about animals that eat live prey?
Moles are one such animal. They spend their lives digging underground, slurping up worms to survive. In the winter, the ground freezes, and it can be harder to dig and, therefore, harder to find worms. What’s a mole to do?
Moles dig underground chambers, much like chipmunks’ larders, but fill them with worms. They can’t fill the chamber with dead worms, though, because they would rot and become inedible. The worms have to be alive. You’re probably asking, why don’t the worms just wriggle their way out?
Moles know where to bite a worm on its neck to paralyze it. So after getting bit, a worm is still alive, but it can no longer move. Moles can then move these worms into the chamber and eat from it whenever they are hungry.
Moles aren’t the only ones that keep living prey. Shrews do it too. Shrews eat worms, insect larvae, snails and sometimes larger animals like frogs, snakes and mice. They have venom that they inject into their prey that paralyzes it but keeps it alive until the shrew is ready to eat. Sometimes the venom starts to wear off too soon and the prey can move again. That’s not a problem for the shrews, who will just inject it again.
Red squirrels want more variety in their diets than just acorns and other nuts and seeds. They developed a taste for mushrooms, but mushrooms aren’t available year-round.
Red squirrels will harvest, or pick, mushrooms and then set them in branches until they dry out, like jerky or raisins. Then they collect the dried mushrooms and store them to munch on later.
Sometimes a predator gets lucky and takes down larger prey than they can eat at in one meal. For example, bobcats can catch a deer, which has enough meat to last for several days — but only if another meat-eater doesn’t find it and finish it first! Bobcats will eat their fill and then cover what’s left with a layer of snow, dirt and/or leaves, kind of like covering the best leftovers with foil and hiding them in the back of the fridge so the rest of your family won’t notice!
Foxes will also hide extra food, like birds, eggs and bones, for later under a thin layer of dirt or leaves. Urban foxes may hide food in flower boxes. That would be quite a surprise for a neighborhood gardener to find!
Even though animals do not have the human conveniences of a stocked pantry and fridge, they find ways to keep themselves fed. Watch the squirrels on the ground or birds at the bird feeders. Can you catch any of them taking food away to store for later? Can you find their hiding places? Or imagine yourself as one of these animals or birds. Try hiding acorns or seeds. Can a friend or family member find your stash, or is it safe for another day?
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