Red Squirrels: Caching Mushrooms
Many Islanders preserve fresh food for winter, but this seasonal task isn’t unique to humans. Our neighbours of other species do the same thing. Many of my spruce trees are decorated with mushrooms in late summer and fall, carefully placed by Red Squirrels (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) to dry for storage (Photo 1).
Red Squirrels are true omnivores, feeding on seeds, nuts, fruit, flowers, bark, insects, bird eggs, nestlings, small mammals and miscellaneous dead things. In fall, their penchant for mushrooms becomes especially obvious, as they collect and hang fungi to dry. Elevating mushrooms not only aids drying, but also keeps them out of reach of insects and slugs that would devour them.
There’s part of my land in Central PEI I call “squirrel alley” because of all the sign. In winter, it often looks like a squirrel stampede passed through. Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been watching as entire mushrooms and mushroom pieces appear in the conifers, dry over the course of a few days, and then disappear. As any gardener or forager knows, dried produce resists decay and stores well over the cold, dark months. Squirrels use this to their advantage, dehydrating their fungi before storing them in a nearby tree cavity or underground cache.
I find Red Squirrels most often park their mushrooms upside down (Photo 2), and occasionally eat the stem or gills first (Photo 3). They seem to have no particular preference for species, caching both those we’d consider choice edibles (such as Chantrelles) and those toxic to people (such as Amanitas, Photo 4). All this mushroom munching does have some ecological benefit, as Red Squirrels help spread fungal spores in their scat.
Next time you’re among spruce or fir trees in late summer, keep an eye out for this cool sign of Red Squirrels preparing for winter!