How do squirrels find their nuts?

Squirrels spend autumn stashing nuts away for winter, but how do they find them again? Sense of smell, memory and chance all play a part.

Red squirrel with nuts. © Neil Burton/Getty

Why do squirrels bury nuts?

Red and grey squirrels can’t find enough food every day during the winter, and they’d starve to death if they didn’t make appropriate preparations. That means stashing nuts to make it through the winter, but first they must select the right ones: squirrelling food away is a waste of effort if it’s not nutritious and in good condition. The rodents recognise ripe nuts by smell, much as we tell a ripe melon from one that’s hard and tasteless.

Advertisement
Eurasian red squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris) sitting on an old tree trunk and eating nuts in the Cairngorms, Scottish Highlands.
Eurasian red squirrel eating nuts in the Cairngorms, Scottish Highlands. © BarbAnna/Getty

Squirrels also reject acorns and hazelnuts that have been hollowed out by weevils, whose larvae develop inside the protective shell. By handling these dud nuts, the animals recognise that they are too light, tossing them aside – experiments show that hollowed-out nuts filled with plaster will fool squirrels into storing them away.

In an autumn when food is abundant, squirrels have plenty of spare time to collect nuts one at a time in their mouth. They scrape a small hole in soft earth and bury their prize, patting the soil down on top to hide it from birds.

Grey squirrel with nuts
Grey squirrel with nut. © Marco Pozzi/Getty

How do squirrels find their nuts?

Squirrels use a combination of clues to find their nuts again later. First, the caching is not random. A particular place will have been chosen – under a big oak, for example – and remembered. Several squirrels may also use the same patch, which increases the probability that they will find stored nuts simply by chance.

When a squirrel returns weeks later, it peers at the ground, looking for disturbed soil and sniffing to detect a nutty smell. This multi-sense inspection focuses digging on the spots most likely to yield a nut. Any that are missed develop into new trees, benefiting future generations.

Red squirrel with nuts in mouth in the snow
Squirrels can even find their buried nuts under the snow. © Andy Parkinson/Nature Picture Library/Getty

Did you know?

Squirrels can even sniff out stored nuts under a layer of snow.

Greys spend more time foraging on the ground than reds, so exploit a much wider selection of foods.

Grey squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) eating a nut in a park
Grey squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) eating a nut in a park. © sines-design/Getty
Advertisement

Do you have a wildlife question you’d like answered? Email your question to wildquestions@immediate.co.uk or post it to Q&A, BBC Wildlife Magazine, Immediate Media Company, 2nd Floor, Tower House, Fairfax Street, Bristol, BS1 3BN