Story and photos by Susan C. Morse
Putting Food Up
We start putting food up in August – about the time we
can smell the sun-warmed tomatoes, even before we
gather them for canning. “Putting food up” is a curious
expression. Originating back in the 1700s, this idiom
means “preserving and storing food” – and that we
certainly do. But “up” is hardly a useful image since we
usually descend steep, awkward stairs into dark cellars
to place our jars of preserved food on shelves.
“Up,” as a food-storage concept, applies more to the
deliberate and creative methods used by gray and red
squirrels. Yes, they will store food down low: the gray
squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) buries its food beneath
the soil and duff in shallow excavations, and the red
squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) stores thousands
of cones in ground-level middens. However, to our
delight, squirrels also love to store food in high places
where we can see them in action.
As a child, I was fascinated and amused to watch
a gray squirrel carry a piece of dried corn up a black
birch tree and place it inside a small stem cavity and
then repeat the same journey again and again. Small
pieces of mineral-rich bone, antler, and even turtle
shells are also carried up to hiding places in trees to
prevent their discovery and consumption by other
mammals. Squirrels also cache the fruits of wild
grape, apple, cherry, and hawthorn species inside
small cavities in trees.
One telltale sign that squirrels are putting up food
is the sight of mushrooms carefully placed along
large branches or dangling like Christmas ornaments
from the crotches of smaller limbs. Both gray and
red squirrels store and eat dozens of species of fungi.
Indeed, the storage and consumption behavior of
squirrels and a number of other birds and mammals contributes to the spread of mycorrhizal
fungi, which results in improved forest health, productivity, and diversity.
I was attempting to photograph an adolescent gray squirrel that was eating morsels of
unidentified food. The young squirrel lifted what looked like a miniature potato to its mouth
and consumed it. Then it collected another morsel and this time scampered away with it,
climbing a nearby maple. This behavior was repeated four more times before the squirrel
disappeared completely into the tree’s dense canopy. Upon closer investigation, I found the
potato-like items were the tiny caps of false truffles (Rhizopogon spp.).
My most endearing experience with squirrel mushroom-caching occurred just outside
my rental-cabin window on Big Moose Lake in the Adirondacks. Repeated trips of the red
squirrel across the window screen to a tear in its corner tipped me off that something was
up. There, inside the screen, was a neatly placed row of nine mushrooms, safely stored and
drying on the protected window ledge. The squirrel caught me spying on her treasure and
indignantly glared at me, flipping her tail with great annoyance – telling me to mind my own
business, for she had important work to do.
Susan C. Morse is founder and program director of Keeping Track in Huntington, Vermont.
Clockwise from top: A young gray squirrel eats false
truffle caps. Mushroom stored in recessed scar of
moose barking wound. A red squirrel mushroom
stash. An apple stored firmly in a tree crotch by a