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Enjoying Fall Colors? Thank a Squirrel

Bonnie Jean Feldkamp on

As a gardener who also likes to feed the birds, I have a love-hate relationship with squirrels. They dig up flower bulbs, steal my birdseed and bury nuts in my herb box. We even had a family of squirrels take up residence in our attic once. We listened to thumps, scratches and scurrying at all hours of the day and night, driving the dogs and us bonkers until we had them trapped and humanely removed.

Regardless of all their mischief, squirrels are fun to watch, especially in the fall with their frantic collecting and storing of nuts for the winter. They eat some, stash some and steal from each other. They bury thousands of acorns. I like the little pat-pat-pat they do on top of the dirt when they've finished.

They may look distracted, unorganized and frantic, but it turns out there's a method to squirrel madness. They're specific about which acorns to eat versus which ones to bury, and their forgetfulness provides the world a service. In a study from the University of Richmond, researchers Michael Steele and Peter D. Smallwood learned that squirrels fail to recover up to 74% of the acorns they bury. And in a world where forests are disappearing at an alarming rate, squirrels provide accidental assistance in reforestation. Especially for red oak trees.

Red oaks specifically benefit from squirrels because their seeds don't germinate until the spring. And in case you didn't know, acorns are technically a fruit. On the other hand, acorns from a white oak germinate shortly after falling to the ground in the fall. Squirrels know this and tend to eat acorns from white oaks immediately. If they were to bury a white oak acorn and it germinated before they retrieved it, half of its stored energy would go to the seedling rather than the squirrel. Squirrels are even known to excise the embryo of a white oak acorn if they decide to bury it. Each acorn represents a little energy pack, and squirrels don't want the effort to go to waste.

Squirrels tend to bury red oak acorns knowing they're good to eat all winter, but because they forget where many of them are, the squirrel is essentially planting oak trees -- by the thousands. Even if they take a bite first before they bury it, researchers found that since the embryo sits at the bottom of the nut, it will still sprout. Perhaps an adaptation from the tree for survival because squirrels many times do take a taste prior to planting. Researchers also found that squirrels tend to plant the most viable acorns. When presented with ones infested with insect larvae, squirrels ate those immediately, benefiting from the added protein.


We hear a lot of fuss about Johnny Appleseed and his efforts to populate Ohio and Pennsylvania with apple trees. We learn his story in elementary school, and he even has "National Johnny Appleseed Day" to celebrate him. But squirrels? They get a hunting season and are deemed suburban pests. Maybe this year, we can appreciate the job they're doing, even if it is unintentionally.

Scientists now believe that many second-growth oak forests are because of the inadvertent work of squirrels. So, while you enjoy the fireworks display of fall foliage this year, remember to thank a squirrel for those gorgeous red oaks.


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