We are now in autumn’s climatic transitions: falling foliage, diminishing daylight, frost and freeze, a daily chill, and the rhythms of life cycles of plants and animals. Plants are releasing fruits, seeds, cones, and nuts to preserve their genetic lineage.
Many animals are migrating or hibernating. Others harvest and hoard, including resourceful NEK folks like Wynne! Pints-after-pints of her applesauce have landed in our freezer, along with quarts of tomato sauce, packets of prepared corn and zucchini, and summer frozen blueberries, strawberries, peas, and green beans - her harvest and hoarding!
Humans have gathered and preserved their food for thousands of years. Now modern agriculture, food processing, and preservatives, kitchen appliances, and markets give us year-round meals. Wildlife species have also evolved many ways to extend their year-round nutrition. Following Vermont’s most recent ice age, co-evolution occurs between the many trees and shrubs that produce mast (fruits, seeds, cones, and nuts) and the summer-grown populations of birds and mammals that feed on those plants in the late summer and into autumn. Two momentary examples:
First, on a mid-September morning, I took Jessie the dog into a grove of White Pines. As I listened for the early birds, instead I heard nearby thumps and paused to investigate. We watched a couple of red squirrels scramble up a large pine and nip off the cones that thumped on the forest floor. These squirrels would stash those cones in a midden– a mound of conifer scales, needles, and cone cores that have accumulated there for years, a cache for the squirrels’ winter meals.
Second, in October of 1984, my Toyota pickup wasn’t running smoothly. Investigation under the hood found the air filter filled with sunflower shells and a family bed of mice living next to the warm engine block. The following chilly morning I turned on the heater fan, and immediately the feet of a small mouse appeared in the dashboard vent.
These thumping cones and Toyota mice were products of rodents storing winter food.
Now consider resourceful birds: tiny chickadees and nuthatches with fragile metabolisms that may consume their body fat on cold winter nights, so they must find food by 7 a.m. Their winter wild foods are sparse insects and spiders surviving in the shelter of tree bark, decaying logs on the forest floor, or sunlit soil. These little birds work those sites vigorously along with house eaves and other sheltering structures, especially our well-stocked bird feeders. The feeders give them foods that they can cache in sites that they remember; they’ll take away hundreds of sunflower seeds and wedge them into crevices in tree bark. They then must remember where they’ve stashed their harvest.
Consider Blue Jays who seek hard mast acorns, hickory, and beechnuts. These shrewd and energetic birds store their food in scores of small pockets in the soil, under leaves, among tree roots, a “scatter–hoard” of many sites they must remember! Their activity in stashing acorns has led biologists to believe that Blue Jays have unwittingly expanded the distribution of oak trees, reasonably considered as part of their co-evolution.
Consider, in winter months we may see Northern Shrikes, fierce sub-Arctic birds that come south to feed upon Vermont mammals and birds. Though a songbird itself, the shrike is a predator with the nickname “butcherbird.” Shrikes capture their prey but lack the capacity of a hawk or an owl, so they must store part of their prey by impaling it on thorns or sharp twigs. A shrike’s butchered Cedar Waxwing or Meadow Vole may offer 2-3 days of leftovers.
Consider the ravens and crows that may feed on a deer carcass over several days. They also may tear off hunks of meat and fat to secretly stash these bits for a later day.
Among mammals that have adapted skills to preserve winter food, the rodents are the champions, from mice to beavers. They must either store winter food or become dormant during some part of the cold season. Jumping Mice hibernate, but Deer Mice or White-footed Mice may stash winter food in their favorite vehicles or buildings, such as every corner of my house. Red Squirrels store seeds from cones from pines, firs, and spruces by creating a cache in an existing midden. Gray Squirrels share some of the same tastes and behaviors of Blue Jays - hard mast seeds, acorns, and nuts – which they also store in a “scatter-hoard”. Gray Squirrels are aware that hungry others will pilfer their stash if possible, so these protective Squirrels dig false sites to deceive observing squirrels, chipmunks, and birds. Chipmunks, in their underground home, can store mast foods as well as fungi at hand, and also spend some weeks in dormancy.
Beavers, Vermont’s largest rodents, uniquely harvest and store their winter food. In felling trees such as willows, alders, aspens, maples, birches, and oaks near the water, the beaver will trim off limbs and branches and fix them into the mud of their aquatic lodge. When stripped of any bark or cambium by hungry beavers, they become part of the lodge but no longer part of its diet.
Big Cats - Leopards and Jaguars, which are both nimble and strong enough to haul heavy prey, such as antelopes, up into the limbs of a tree, will have several days of preserved meat out of rivals’ reach. Closer to home, bobcats, coyotes, and foxes may try to save prey by covering it; and, of course, dogs bury bones!
Like wild animals, enjoy your harvest, but manage your hoarding.