Greenpoint: Hiding food for the winter

The bird feeder was empty again, and I took it down off its hook and filled it with sunflower seeds. It’s a small feeder that looks like a little red house, and I like it because the squirrels can’t get in.

A minute later it was bustling — chickadees, nuthatches, titmice — going back and forth, grabbing seeds and flying off, then returning for more. Clearly these guys had something more than lunch in mind.

Turns out some birds store seeds for the winter. While the songbirds have flown south where food is abundant year-round, our current bird-feeder friends, the chickadees, nuthatches and titmice, will stay up north with us. And in addition to gathering seed together, they’ll flock together in the winter months, foraging for more food and living off what they hid.

We’re all storing food for the winter. I do it in jars on the shelves and bags in the freezer, storing in bulk. The birds store seeds singly, generally in cracks in tree bark or the crook of branches. Some birds tuck seeds under mulch or roof shingles, in rain gutters on roofs or in holes in siding. Blue jays bury seeds; some woodpeckers make holes in bark to stuff acorns into. The small birds tend to store food within 150 feet of the source — the feeder — which here takes them into the woods.

There are lots of animals that store food for later whenever they find a ready supply, some in more logical places than others. I’ve found sunflower seeds, nuts, dog food and pumpkin seeds in my boots and in corners behind furniture, all courtesy of our visiting mice. That makes them “larder hoarders” like me, instead of “scatter hoarders” like the birds.

Gray squirrels are scatter hoarders, hiding a few seeds, nuts or other treats at a time, all around the yard and woods. Their little cousins, the red squirrels, are larder hoarders, filling holes in trees or in the ground and covering their stash with leaves. The red squirrels even dry food, like mushrooms, for longer storage. Some of the squirrels and chipmunks have been hoarding squash and pumpkins seeds, hollowing out some of our winter storage curing on a table near the garden.

Chipmunks also are larder hoarders, creating stockpiles of underground food before going into a semi-hibernation for winter. Larger mammals such as bears store some food, but mostly eat as much as they can in the fall, bulking up before hunkering down in dens for the winter. Like chipmunks, they slow their metabolism and sleep, living off their own stored fat. It’s not a full hibernation, just a slowed down state called torpor or dormancy, and they wake at times and snack on some of their stored food.

With winter approaching, the animals are busy — eating food, hiding food, stealing from others’ stashes and hiding it in new places.

Come spring we’ll find some of those hidden seeds in the garden, when clumps of sunflowers, pumpkins and squash pop up in places we never planted them. By then, we’ll have emptied most of our own storage and will be welcoming the return of the songbirds.

Greenpoint appears every other Sunday. Look for it next on Nov. 20. Reach Margaret Hartley at [email protected] or on Twitter @Hartley_Maggie. Opinions expressed in Greenpoint are not necessarily those of the newspaper’s.

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Categories: Life and Arts, Life and Arts