What a Mushroom Eating Squirrel Teaches Us About Nature
Updated: Dec 24, 2021
After a rainy spell a couple weeks ago, mushrooms appeared in a section of my rewilded yard. About a week later I started noticing mushroom stems around the yard and deck and wondered what critter was responsible.
The day after I saw the stems, I looked out my kitchen door to see an Eastern grey squirrel sitting on some yard furniture intently munching away on a mushroom. It looked like he was intentionally eating around the edges.
After watching him for a few minutes I realized the squirrel was focusing on the gills which is why the edge of the cap had bite marks all around it. When he was done with the gills, he ate the very ends of the mycelium, or “roots”, before tossing the mushroom aside and scampering off.
Squirrels are motivated just about every minute of their day with finding food. If necessary, they have a wide range of choices because they’re omnivores, meaning they eat both plants and animals. Nuts and seeds make up as much as 95% of their diet. About 2% of their diet comes from animal protein including insect adults and larvae, and 3% comes from fruit, plants, and any fungi they can find in their habitat. Mushrooms are a nutrient-rich option because they supply fiber, protein, complex sugars, vitamins, and immune-boosting compounds.
I’m not a mushroom forager and didn’t get a consensus on identification when I asked in a mushroom group, so I’m not sure if the mushrooms from my yard were poisonous. No worry either way for the squirrel because squirrels can eat mushrooms that contain poisonous toxins without being affected, including the invasive death cap mushroom (amanita phalloides) brought to North America with tree saplings over a century ago. Their mycelia live only in tree roots and will travel with the roots even if transplanted. Like all invasive species, once transplanted in North America death caps began naturalizing and spreading without external aid.
As interesting as it is to learn squirrels are able to eat poisonous mushrooms, I found it even more fascinating to find out they also dry mushrooms to cache (store) for winter. In 1900 an article in a monthly publication called Birds and All Nature mentioned that squirrels in Siberia store mushrooms in a "peculiar manner" by "unselfishly pinning them on pine needles or small twigs to dry". I was able to easily find more recent anecdotes about squirrels drying mushrooms
Aislinn Sarnacki, a naturalist writer in Maine researched the phenomenon, went searching in local woods, and was able to find drying mushroom pieces apparently left by squirrels.
Boothbay Region Landtrust explains the behavior and has photos of mushroom pieces left by squirrels decorating a spruce tree like Christmas ornaments.
Janet Pesaturo shares evidence of squirrel mushroom drying activity in her Winterberry Wildlife blog.
Betsey Seeton in her photo-blog posted a series of adorable photos of a young squirrel stashing mushrooms in tree limbs, then going back and eating some.
I focus on squirrels often because they are the most common wildlife in urban and suburban yards and can offer a connection to nature for just about everyone. Right now, yards are compartmentalized into good and bad insects, wildlife, and plants by companies paid to destroy the “bad” and wreak havoc on the ecosystem in the process. Squirrels in this scenario are considered pests. They've been on earth for about 36 million years, so it seems we should be the ones that need to find a way to coexist with them. Protecting our own "nests" from squirrels getting in is our responsibility.
Squirrels have helped me learn about many aspects of our natural world. With a little PR help they could offer a key role in making the natural world accessible and the backyard ecosystem more understandable for adults and children. In my small ungardened yard for example squirrels can’t do any damage because they belong with the other wildlife foraging for food. Thanks to them, I’ve just added finding mushrooms drying in trees to my naturalist wishlist bingo card. 😊
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