Have you ever read something about nature that just blows your mind? Maybe it even creeps you out just a little bit? Well, that’s what happened to me the other day when I read that squirrels hang mushrooms in trees to dry out, like clothes on a line, as a way to preserve them before winter.
“Are you pulling our leg?” a man asked while attending a nature hike I recently led at Cathance River Nature Preserve in Topsham.
I assured him I was not. But I couldn’t blame him for asking. I’d wondered about the veracity of the claim myself when I’d first read it.
As is often the case nowadays, it all started with a Facebook post. On the “Maine Naturalists” page, a person posted two photos of mushrooms balanced in a similar fashion on the jagged 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.)
It didn’t surprise me that a squirrel would leave a mushroom on a tree stump, perhaps becoming distracted mid-meal. But I was surprised by the last sentence of the post: “To dry perhaps?”
No way. Squirrels aren’t that smart, I told myself. Then I proceeded to research the topic.
At the top of my Google search were a bunch of blog posts about mushroom-drying squirrels. But here’s the thing: Sometimes false nature “facts” get circulated on the internet by well-meaning, enthusiastic nature nerds like myself. So I knew I had to dig deeper.
Well, it didn’t take me long to unearth a bunch of scientific research on the topic, which gave me a chuckle. Apparently I’m not the only one who finds this behavior fascinating.
“During the harvest of conifer cones and creation of cone caches, red squirrels may also collect fruiting bodies of mushrooms and deposit them in trees for drying, caching, and later consumption,” according to a 2015 article published by the Society for Northwestern Vertebrate Biology. “This behavior has been widely reported in literature … including popular field guides, but remains little studied.”
I was particularly excited to find mention of this mushroom drying behavior in the article “Dining Habits of the Red Squirrel,” written by Tracey Hall, environmental educator for the Boothbay Region Land Trust. She watched a red squirrel leave whole mushrooms on the boughs of spruce trees in early August of this year.
It was also fun to read the words of a naturalist who became fascinated by this same phenomenon nearly 100 years ago.
In the February 1924 edition of the Journal of Mammalogy, author and illustrator William Everett Cram wrote about his observations of red squirrels “who gather [mushrooms] up, one by one, run up the pine stems with them and out along the slender dead branches, and then very carefully place each one in a forked twig.”
The squirrels left the mushrooms to dry for up to a week, depending on the weather, Cram said. Then they were added to the squirrels’ winter caches of nuts and acorns.
“It’s just as deliberate and foresighted an action as is that of the farmer when he spreads his hay or corn to dry in the sun and gathers it under cover 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 wasn’t hopeful. After all, I’d never noticed mushrooms hanging from tree branches before.
There’s a particularly squirrel-filled place at the end of my road, where hemlock and white pine trees tower overhead. I’ve also found some interesting mushrooms in that neck of the woods. So to me, it seemed like the most likely location to make any discoveries.
To my absolute delight, I was spot on.
In that shady section of forest, on one skinny, half-dead tree, mushrooms had been left to dry — or so it appeared. They weren’t whole mushrooms, but sizable chunks. And in my research, I’d read that squirrels will sometimes break a large mushroom into chunks for drying. Three meaty, brown pieces of fungus were wedged into the crooks of branches — all in a similar fashion. And just a few feet away, another piece of mushroom was balanced on the stump of a tree.
My cellphone rang. Still staring 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 I was talking about.
I explained myself. While Derek appreciates nature, he’s not what I’d call an aspiring naturalist. Nevertheless, he found my story to be pretty cool. And that reinforced my decision to write about it for this week’s column.
It seems I’ve been underestimating the intelligence and resourcefulness of my neighborhood squirrels. Maybe I should place a mini chess board out there beside the bird feeder this winter, just in case they get bored.