Smart Squirrels

December 6, 2014.  I’m set up well before dawn, leaning against a tree trunk on the south bank of Cedar Creek, having walked in from the parking lot at the South Cedar Creek canoe launch. Just before official sunrise at 7:11 AM, the woodpeckers wake up and begin drumming. Most of the sounds are coming from pileateds and carry long distances by virtue of the time of day, little obstructing tree foliage, and the powerful beak of this large woodpecker striking dead and half-dead resonant wood. The drumming and wood knocking are forms of communication and perhaps winter territorial marking. Initially, the woodpeckers do little in the way of calling or voice communication at this time of morning. Later, the woods echo with a different type of woodpecker noise, that of powerful beaks knocking out chunks of wood in search of insect food.

I was hoping to see an otter or two in the creek but have no luck. There are several small groups of wood ducks flying up the creek, uttering their high-pitched squeals. They are close enough that I can hear the air swooshing by their wings.

Tannin-stained black waters of Cedar Creek.

Cedar Creek is as beautifully black as I’ve ever seen it and ideal for kayaking, the gauge reading 3.5 feet. By now a light fog has settled in over the upper tree canopy. It adds mood to the ink-black creek. Eventually the sun breaks through, and the silk threads of hundreds of spiders gleam in the piercing, yellow rays. I find an orb weaver with its web. By 10 AM it has warmed up from a slight southwesterly breeze, and I even feel a puff of warm air on the side of my face, almost as if someone were blowing on my cheek.

Bird activity has slowed down to nothing, so I resort to squirrel watching. One fellow, not far away on the thick, leaf-covered ground, is busy with activity. I’m surprised to see it actually dig up a fresh swamp chestnut oak acorn, rather than bury it. The industrious squirrel nibbles on it a little, then carries it away and re-buries it. It repeats this performance four times in twenty minutes, only instead of reburying the whole acorn as it did the first time, the squirrel cracks the acorn in half longitudinally and buries each half separately, but not before gnawing on them a little, and in one case, appearing to smell the nut half. What is going on here? Why would a squirrel rebury its cache (assuming this is his cache; I’m thinking each squirrel has its own caching territory, but maybe there’s some overlap, or pilfering of a neighbor’s cache)? Some of the answers may lie with the type of acorn that’s being buried. Acorns of the white oak group start to germinate shortly after falling to the ground, while those in the red oak group have a delayed germination response that doesn’t kick in until the spring. Cutting a white oak acorn in half before burying it would likely prevent germination and insure that it remains a food source for the squirrel. Are squirrels that smart? How did they figure this out? Seems we are always underestimating the cleverness and resourcefulness of our animal friends.