I often marvel at wildlife activity as it relates to feeding and storing food. It isn’t lost on me that finding, eating and caching food is a full time job for all species of wildlife, be they preparing for winter and/or surviving winter.
As we all know, most birds in Minnesota have long since migrated to warmer climes, yet wherever these species migrate to and end up spending the wintertime, the job of locating and consuming food is unending.
Here in northern Minnesota where year-round resident birds and non-hibernating species of wildlife are active every day or night, it’s never easy for these species to stay warm and find enough food to get them through another day and night.
If you spend any time watching blue jays, chickadees, nuthatches, and other winter birds at your backyard feeding stations, you’ve no doubt noticed that birds do more flying than actually perching contentedly at the feeder cracking seed hulls and gulping down your nutritious seeds.
Indeed, birds spend a great deal of time plucking seeds and flying off with them to either feed alone on some favorite perch or, most of the time, hiding the seeds somewhere special for later consumption. Called caching, wildlife of all kinds routinely cache, or store food, to eat later.
Jays are especially adept at caching food, gray jays and blue jays among them. Gray jays, for example, possess special mucus-secreting glands on the sides of their beak that produces a sticky, saliva-like substance that is used to “glue” foodstuffs together.
This enables gray jays to clump food together, like berries, nuts, insects, and other foods, and stick the bonded morsels onto branches, under tree-bark crevices, inside tree cavities, and the like. Their habit of caching food is instinctive, which helps the bird survive harsh winters. During lean times the bird can return to its many caches and feast on its globular creations.
Clark’s nutcrackers, a species of corvid of the western United States, are champion caching birds. They have extraordinary spatial memories that enable them to relocate in the wintertime most of the pine nuts and various seeds that they stored throughout the autumn months, even underneath several feet of snow. Up to 33,000 seeds are cached each fall by foraging Clark’s nutcrackers!
Another unique feature of the Clark’s nutcracker is its lingual pouch (a pouch behind its tongue). Blue jays have a similar pouch, called a gular pouch. The specialized pouches enable these birds to store many seeds and nuts, up to 90 or more depending on seed size in the case of Clark’s nutcrackers. When their pouches are full, the birds transport the seeds to different hiding places such as within fissures of tree bark, into small tree cavities, and even underground.
Clark’s nutcrackers can create as many as 2,500 caches of five to 10 seeds inside each cache and blue jays can carry off three to four acorns in their gular pouches!
Some species of winter wildlife rely on a different method of storing food for later utilization, because not all species have the ability to physically collect and cache food.
In the case of mammals, we can think of many examples of species that cache food — foxes and coyotes store food by burying some of their prey. Weasels hide mice, voles, and other prey inside of hollow logs, cavities and in burrows, too. And tree squirrels and ground squirrels both horde nuts and seeds in a multitude of hiding places in order to eat later.
But in the case of white-tailed deer and black bears, these species consume an abundance of high-protein, nutritious foods before the onset of winter in order to add fat to their bodies. Stored fat enables deer, bear and many other animals to survive the lean times by keeping them warm and alive when food is scarce.
In essence, these animals’ stored body fat equals stored food.
We obviously also store food. Our cupboards, pantries, root cellars, refrigerators and freezers are storing food, too, and while we work hard to make sure we’ve plenty of food to get us through our long winters, rest assured that Minnesota’s resident wildlife is doing the same as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.
Blane Klemek is a Minnesota DNR wildlife manager. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.