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How do squirrels remember where they bury their nuts?

How do squirrels remember where they bury their nuts?
How do squirrels remember where they bury their nuts? 02:36

MINNEAPOLIS — Have you ever lost your keys or phone in your own home? When it comes to finding things, squirrels may have a leg up on us. 

Diane in Red Wing emailed us wondering: How do squirrels remember where they bury nuts? Good Question. WCCO's Kirsten Mitchell found out how.

Love them or hate them, fall is crunch time for squirrels.

Like the rest of us, they're preparing for a long winter, but they are stocking up their outdoor pantry with nuts.

"They are unable to put on enough fat to last long periods of time, so they have to feed every single day," naturalist Steve Tekiela said. "They are opportunistic eaters. They will eat whatever they can get."

Things that are perishable, they will eat right away, but when it comes to the nuts, they store for the winter, they have to be picky eaters.

"They pick up the nut and they smell it. They turn it around in their paws, kind of roll it around, and they are assessing it for their viability. Does it have any cracks, does it have any holes in it? Is the weight of it, is it good for eating now or storing later?" Tekiela said.

If it passes the test, Tekiela says squirrels will buy nuts one at a time, often over an area of one to two acres or more.

"The studies they are doing now show that they are finding anywhere between 90 and 95% of the nuts they bury, and an individual squirrel can bury several thousand nuts," Tekiela said.

So how do they remember where they hid them?

"Maybe they see a tree they know, maybe he park benches are helpful," John Frey guessed, and he's on the right track.

"They use a mental, spatial map in order to find it. Think of a squirrel GPS. And they go off of, okay there's a rock here, and a tree there, the nut is somewhere between there," Tekiela said.

Then, they use their sense of smell to find the exact location, even under the snow.

Squirrels will retrieve the nuts as soon as there are no other food sources around.

So, if you see the scavengers out in full force this fall, just remember they're on a survival mission.

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