How Are Squirrels Able to Find the Nuts They Bury?

How Are Squirrels Able to Find the Nuts They Bury?

  • This “Good Natured” article is written and submitted to Kane County Connects by Pam Otto, the manager of nature programs and interpretive services at the Hickory Knolls Discovery Center, a facility of the St. Charles Park District. She can be reached at 630-513-4346 or

(CREDIT: Pam Otto)

Over the past year and a half or so, when not chasing after snakes or bugs or paperwork, I’ve busied myself with a series of do-it-yourself home-improvement projects. There was last year’s Painting of the Bedroom, which took about two weeks to complete. Then came The Laying of the Laminate, an endeavor that involved the living room, dining room and hallway and lasted about two months. The Kitchen Redo, begun at the beginning of summer, is still in progress, while the Family Room Renovation stalled around March and has yet to regain any of its prior momentum.

It’s true, most of these projects would’ve gone a lot faster if I wasn’t working full time. Or actually had the capacity to say no when someone invites me out for dinner or a drink.

Or if I had a brain like a squirrel.

Being members of the taxonomic order Rodentia, squirrels rarely get much glory. In fact, with their habits of raiding birdfeeders and gnawing on eaves, any fame they do get usually manifests as infamy. But inside those fuzzy-topped skulls lies a mass of cerebral tissue capable of tracking down objects — primarily food items, but other things, too — even months after they’d last had it in their furry little paws.

I — we all — should be so lucky.


Squirrels have advanced spatial memory, which makes them better at finding nuts than we are at finding car keys.

How many times haven’t you gone to retrieve an item you thought for sure you knew the location of, only to find it not there? The car keys. The cell phone. Or, in my case, the paint scraper, spackle, hammer, pry bar, tape measure, coffee cup, duct tape, drill bit, T-square, wood glue, locking pliers and/or socket wrench.

Research suggests that Americans, as a nation, waste about 9 million hours per day searching for misplaced items. Meanwhile, animal behavior studies indicate that gray squirrels, Sciurus carolinensis, are capable of finding the location of a nut or seed as long as 62 days after they stashed it.

The key to squirrels’ remarkable retrievals lies in their ability to use spatial memory to locate objects. By using their position relative to the space around them, as well as visual cues like trees, rocks and roots, these little guys can track down a high percentage of the thousands of nuts and seeds they cache over a year’s time.

Which is a good thing, because their very survival depends on it.

Gray squirrels and their cousins, the fox squirrels, are scatter hoarders, which means they stash, or cache, small quantities of food in many different locations. This strategy differs from, say, chipmunks, who typically are larder hoarders; that is, they build up large stores of food in a single chamber of an underground burrow. This “pantry” then provides the provisions the chippies require throughout the winter months.

Squirrel standing and eating a nut

For many years, it was thought that squirrels’ ability to retrieve their scattered food items was dependent on the animals’ sense of smell. But experiments in the 1980s and ’90s began to show that the animals we regard as “just rodents” have a lot more than a keen sniffer working to their advantage.

In fact, studies have shown that even the squirrels’ seemingly simple act of burying nuts actually is very complex. For instance, they will nip the embryo of acorns of white oak species, since these acorns are likely to germinate before winter is past, but bury acorns of red oak species without excising the embryo because these nuts do not germinate until spring, when other food sources begin to reappear.

Squirrels’ scatter hoarding offers certain survival advantages. For one, they don’t have to worry about having their entire cache raided and stolen, or succumbing to mold. Losing a nut here or there to a competitor or fungus is no big deal.

Another, longer-term advantage is that, inevitably, not every one of those thousands of seeds will be retrieved. Add some sun, rain and time and, voila! A food source for future generations.

The squirrels in our area have been carrying out their scatter-hoarding duties for weeks now in preparation for the winter that lies ahead. I’ve got plans to do the same, with Christmas gifts, as time allows in between home-improvement chores. I’ve made my list and checked it twice.

Now all I have to do is remember where I put it.

Read More ‘Good Natured’ Columns

Badgers Are Alive, Well and Reproducing in Kane County