Do squirrels eat acorns? As an avid squirrel observer and nature lover, I’ve always been fascinated by the relationship between squirrels and acorns. It’s a scene we’re all familiar with – squirrels scurrying around collecting and burying acorns in the fall. But why exactly do squirrels eat acorns? What is it about these nuts that squirrels love so much?
Yes, squirrels absolutely love eating acorns! Acorns are a major part of the diet for many species of squirrels. Squirrels eat acorns as an important source of nutrients to help them survive winter and produce offspring in spring. However, not all acorns are created equal in the eyes of a squirrel. There are some interesting behaviors squirrels use when finding, eating, storing, or caching different types of acorns.
In this post, I’ll dig into the details of the squirrel-acorn connection and share some fascinating facts about how and why squirrels eat acorns.
Table Of Contents
Why Do Squirrels Eat Acorns?
There are a few key reasons why acorns are such an important food source for squirrels:
Acorns provide important nutrients that squirrels need to thrive. Compared to other nuts and seeds, acorns are very high in fat, carbohydrates, protein, vitamins and minerals. Some key nutrients squirrels get from acorns include vitamin A, vitamin E, potassium, magnesium, zinc, calcium, and phosphorous. For small animals like squirrels with fast metabolisms, these dense nutrients are essential.
Oak trees are abundant in many of the forested areas where squirrels live. As reported by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, a single mature oak can produce up to 2,000 acorns in a good year! With oaks producing such a bountiful nut crop, it makes sense that squirrels would take advantage this plentiful food source.
3. Winter Survival
Acorns provide an important food source to help squirrels survive the winter. By collecting and burying acorns in the fall, squirrels create food caches to dig up and eat when food is scarce in winter. Squirrels have adapted excellent spatial memory to locate the acorns they buried.
4. Spring Reproduction
Female squirrels must build up fat reserves in fall and winter in order to successfully reproduce in spring. Acorns provide the fat and nutrients needed to produce healthy offspring. Years with large acorn crops result in higher squirrel reproduction rates compared to poor mast years.
How Do Squirrels Eat and Handle Acorns?
Squirrels have some fascinating adaptations and behaviors when it comes to finding, eating, and storing acorns:
Squirrels will spend hours foraging through oak trees and on the ground to find fallen acorns. Their strong sense of smell helps them locate acorns. Squirrels also use their sharp teeth to gnaw open acorn shells while up in the trees.
Squirrels use their sharp rodent incisors to quickly chew through the acorn shell to access the nutmeat inside. They don’t eat the shell, only the nutty acorn itself. Squirrels will eat some acorns immediately and store others for later.
Squirrels use their front paws to dig holes to bury acorns. They may bury up to 3-5 acorns in each cache location. Amazingly, squirrels can remember the locations of thousands of buried caches to retrieve later in winter!
Selective Caching of Acorns
Not all acorns are equal in the eyes of a squirrel! Squirrels actually select certain acorns to eat right away while caching others for winter. More on this later when we look at differences between oak species.
Do All Squirrels Eat Acorns?
The most common tree squirrels known for eating acorns include:
- Eastern gray squirrels
- Western gray squirrels
- Fox squirrels
- Red squirrels
- Flying squirrels
- Pine squirrels
However, many other rodents also eat acorns, including mice, voles, woodrats, and chipmunks. Birds like blue jays and wild turkeys also consume acorns.
Do Squirrels Have a Favorite Acorn?
It turns out that squirrels actually do prefer certain types of acorns! But to understand their preferences, we first need to know a little background on oak trees and acorn characteristics.
White Oak vs. Red Oak
There are over 500 species of oak trees, but in North America oaks mainly fall into two broad categories – white oak and red oak. Each group has slightly different acorn characteristics:
|White Oak Acorns||Red Oak Acorns|
|Lower tannins||Higher tannins|
|Milder taste||More bitter taste|
|Germinate quickly after falling||Require cold winter stratification|
The key difference is that white oak acorns tend to be lower in tannins, giving them a milder taste. Red oak acorns are higher in tannins, giving them a bitter taste. Tannins help protect acorns from insects and diseases.
White oak acorns also germinate very soon after falling from the tree in autumn. Red oak acorns require a cold winter dormancy before germinating in spring.
Given the choice, squirrels tend to prefer white oak acorns over red oak acorns. Researchers have observed that squirrels will selectively eat more white oak acorns immediately while saving red oak acorns to bury for winter caches.
The milder taste and immediate germination time mean squirrels can’t hoard white oak acorns for as long before they go bad. So it makes sense for squirrels to eat white oak acorns right away while saving the more bitter, longer-lasting red oak acorns for winter.
Also, the levels of fat are influencing squirrel foraging behavior.
How Many Acorns Do Squirrels Eat?
Squirrels are constantly on the hunt for acorns in the fall. But just how many acorns does a squirrel eat on a daily basis?
It’s estimated gray squirrels may consume up to 10-15 acorns per day. However, this amount can vary greatly depending on the size of the acorn crop each year.
Squirrels don’t actually eat only acorns. They also consume other nuts, seeds, fruits, fungi, insects, and even small vertebrates. But acorns make up a major proportion of a squirrel’s diet in autumn when they are readily available.
Do Squirrels Eat Acorn Shells or Caps?
Squirrels do not eat the acorn shell or cap – they only consume the nutmeat inside. The shell and cap provide no nutritional value. In fact, the cap may help protect the nut from insects and diseases while on the tree.
Using their sharp rodent incisors, squirrels are able to efficiently gnaw into acorns and remove just the edible nutmeat portion. They discard the rest.
Why Do Squirrels Bury Acorns?
You may be wondering why squirrels go to the trouble of burying acorns instead of eating them right away. There are a couple of key reasons:
Caching for Winter
Squirrels rely on stored food to survive winter when food is scarce. By burying acorns, squirrels create scattered caches that they can retrieve later during winter.
Burying nuts allows squirrels to hide them from other animals that may steal acorns or nuts left out in the open. Scattering caches reduces food theft.
Amazingly, squirrels never manage to recover all the acorns they bury! Forgotten acorns have a chance to germinate into oak seedlings. So squirrels play a role in dispersing seeds and regenerating oak forests.
How Do Squirrels Remember Where They Buried Acorns?
Given that squirrels bury thousands of acorns each autumn, you may wonder how they manage to find them later. It turns out that squirrels have excellent spatial memory and use a few tricks:
- Squirrels utilize spatial memory, landmarks, visual cues, and their sense of smell to locate buried nuts.
- They bury nuts in scattered locations, not just one large hoard.
- Squirrels will actively sniff out their buried nuts later on.
- They tend to bury nuts deep under multiple inches of leaves or soil to avoid detection from other animals.
Using these techniques, researchers have found that squirrels can successfully retrieve up to 95% of the nuts they buried. Their memory and sense of smell for locating buried food caches are impressive.
Do Other Animals Eat Acorns?
While squirrels may be the most famous acorn fans, many other animals consume acorns as well:
- Mice and voles – Small rodents that also store acorns in hiding places underground.
- Chipmunks – Chipmunks eat acorns and compete with squirrels for the acorn bounty.
- Blue jays – Jays swallow acorns whole to transport and bury them.
- Wild turkeys – Turkeys consume large amounts of acorns, sometimes dominating prime acorn grounds.
- Woodpeckers – Acorn woodpeckers stash acorns in granary trees.
- Bears – Bears eat acorns as an important high-calorie food before hibernation.
- Deer – Deer browse on fallen acorns.
- Wood ducks – Ducks feast on acorns floating on the surface of the water.
As you can see, lots of wildlife depend on the annual acorn crop! Acorns are an important part of forest food webs.
Can Humans Eat Acorns?
Humans can actually consume acorns as well! In fact, acorns were an important source of starch for many indigenous cultures across North America. However, acorns must be properly prepared first.
Raw acorns contain bitter tannins that can be toxic to humans if consumed in large quantities. But the tannins are water soluble, so they can be removed by leaching shelled acorns in hot or cold water over several days, changing the water frequently.
Once leached, the nuts can be roasted, ground into flour, or used in recipes. Native Americans used acorn meals to make baked goods like bread, muffins, and cakes. Roasted acorn nuts can be enjoyed as a snack, added to salads, or used in place of coffee beans.
However, not all oak species are ideal for human consumption. As noted earlier, white oak acorns tend to be lowest in tannins and best for eating. Always properly prepare acorns before eating them yourself!
In conclusion, do squirrels eat acorns? Acorns are an absolutely critical food source for squirrels and many other animals. The abundant nuts provide essential fats, carbohydrates, and protein to help squirrels survive winter and reproduce in spring.
However, squirrels have adapted selective behaviors when it comes to finding, eating, and caching different types of acorns. Squirrels tend to prefer white oak acorns to red oak acorns. They also rely on excellent memory to recover the thousands of nuts they bury each year.
The symbiotic relationship between oaks and squirrels is a fascinating one. Next time you see a squirrel bury an acorn, appreciate the fact you are observing an impressive behavioral adaptation designed to hoard and remember the food!
You may also be interested in reading: