The sun is not quite up, but the six fox squirrels at home in my backyard have roused from their nests and dash along the latticework of branches as I walk across the snow. They know what’s in my bag. Before I can put a handful of raw peanuts on the feeder, the boldest one runs down the trunk of the hickory tree. He stops, stretches and yawns, then takes in his mouth the peanut I offer.
What I bring are treats, not sustenance. Each fox squirrel needs about two pounds of nuts every week to keep running and leaping all winter long. It’s a high-energy lifestyle they lead, regardless of the season, and they do count its cost. They have an investment plan, a plan that’s all about food.
The squirrel pack quickly consumes my offerings. Then the bold male hops through the snow, stops abruptly, and plunges groundward, waving the flag of his tail. When he pops up, his mouth is bulged wide with an acorn. He knew it was there. He knew it was a red oak acorn, a rich energy gem. He buried it himself after a fall day’s feeding spree.
Perched in the hickory and oak trees, he and his companions would speed eat—dropping nuts only partially consumed—working to add as much fat as possible, and as quickly as possible, in order to spend time on their main investment strategy. Glutted, the squirrels ran to the ground and scattered, burying nuts hauled from the trees. Each squirrel burying one nut at a time, time after time—it seemed a huge spill of energy. But it would have cost them more energy still—and been futile—to fend off the deer, turkeys, and raccoons that also crave the fat-dense nutmeats. Instead, the squirrels hid them, to keep for themselves the food that fuels their winter liveliness.
Not white oak acorns, though. Most of these they ate on the spot. Whites, they know, sprout within days, rendering them useless as food. But red oak acorns they wisely—and shrewdly—buried. Less tasty, yes, but reds stay unsprouted in the cold ground. Plus, they deliver a more powerful dose of energy, badly needed in the bleakest cold. These the squirrels took greater pains to protect, hiding them farther from the tree so thieves will be less likely to uncover them.
Including thieves of their own kind, always nearby and watching. Thus, my favorite male employed a bag of nut-burying tricks. He would dig a decoy hole—or two, or more—before depositing a nut. Or after. He came back later and reburied nuts in new places. Some of his stashes will be found, even under a carpet of snow, by the keen noses of his neighbors. And he will find some of theirs. Those are bonuses. What he depends on to survive the barren season is the power of memory.
I imagine him curled in his nest, a wind-tight ark of leaves and twigs high in the tree, each night consulting the map in his memory. On it is impressed not only the location of each nut, but also its kind. Which of the thousand shall he retrieve tomorrow, which shall he save for a colder day? Winter relentlessly tests the spirited life he leads. He does his utmost to answer, remembering one small buried treasure after another.