Have you ever read something about nature that just blows your mind? Maybe it even scares you a little? Well, that’s what happened to me the other day when I read that squirrels hang mushrooms on trees to dry, like clothes on a clothesline, as a way to preserve them before winter.
“Are you kidding us?” a man asked as he attended a nature walk I led recently at the Cathance River Nature Reserve in Topsham.
I assured him no. But she couldn’t blame him for asking. I myself wondered about the truth of the statement when I first read it.
As is often the case today, it all started with a Facebook post. On the “Maine Naturalists” page, one person posted two photos of mushrooms balanced in a similar way on the uneven wood of tree stumps. They then suggested that it could be the work of “T. Hudsonicus”, which is the abbreviated Latin name for the American red squirrel. (I had to look it up.)
I wasn’t surprised when a squirrel left a mushroom on a tree stump, perhaps getting distracted mid-meal. But I was surprised by the last sentence of the post: “Dry maybe?”.
No way. Squirrels aren’t that smart, I told myself. I then proceeded to research the subject.
At the top of my Google search were a bunch of blog posts about squirrels drying mushrooms. But here’s the thing: Sometimes bogus nature “facts” are circulated on the internet by well-meaning, enthusiastic nature nerds like me. So I knew I had to dig deeper.
Well, it didn’t take me long to discover a ton of scientific research on the subject, which made me laugh. Apparently I’m not the only one who finds this behavior fascinating.
“During the harvest of conifer cones and the creation of cone caches, red squirrels may also collect fungal fruiting bodies and deposit them on trees for later drying, storage, and consumption,” according to a 2015 article published by the Society. for Northwest Vertebrate Biology. . “This behavior has been widely reported in the literature…including popular field guides, but remains understudied.”
I was especially excited to find mention of this drying behavior of the mushrooms in the article “Dining Habits of the Red Squirrel,” written by Tracey Hall, environmental educator for the Boothbay Region Land Trust. She observed a red squirrel leaving whole mushrooms on spruce branches in early August this year.
It was also fun to read the words of a naturalist who was fascinated by this same phenomenon almost 100 years ago.
In the February 1924 issue of the Journal of Mammalogy, author and illustrator William Everett Cram wrote of his observations of red squirrels “getting together [mushrooms] up, one by one, climb the pine stalks with them and along the thin dead branches, and then place each one very carefully on a forked twig.”
The squirrels let the mushrooms dry for up to a week, depending on the weather, Cram said. They were then added to the squirrels’ winter caches of nuts and acorns.
“It is as deliberate and far-sighted an action as that of the farmer when he spreads out his hay or corn to dry in the sun and gathers it indoors before the next rain,” Cram wrote.
Eager to witness this behavior myself, or at least evidence of it, I took my dog for a walk. But I had no hope. After all, he had never noticed mushrooms hanging from tree branches before.
There’s a particularly squirrel-filled spot at the end of my driveway, where the white pines and fir trees tower over their heads. I also found some interesting mushrooms in that neck of the woods. So, to me, it seemed like the most likely place to make any discoveries.
To my absolute delight, it was spot on.
In that shady section of the forest, on a skinny, half-dead tree, mushrooms had been left to dry, or so it seemed. They were not whole mushrooms, but large pieces. And in my research, I had read that squirrels sometimes break a large mushroom into pieces to dry it out. Three fleshy bits of fungus were wedged into the curves of the branches, all in a similar fashion. And just a few meters away, another piece of mushroom was balanced on a tree stump.
My cell phone sleep. Still wide-eyed at my discovery, I accepted the call. “I found it!” I exclaimed to my husband, Derek, on the other line. Of course, he had no idea what he was talking about.
I explained. While Derek appreciates nature, he is not what I would call an aspiring naturalist. However, he found my story very good. And that reinforced my decision to write about it in this week’s column.
It seems that I have been underestimating the intelligence and ingenuity of the squirrels in my neighborhood. Maybe you should put up a mini chess board next to the bird feeder this winter, in case they get bored.