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I recently heard that Eastern grey squirrels sometimes dig holes, pretend to bury nuts, or other food, and then cover the empty holes. I was told that they use all the same motions and effort as they would if actually burying a nut for future consumption. Sometimes they even have a nut in their mouth, and at some point during the process, they store it deep into their cheek, so squirrels watching them assume their mouth is empty.

The purpose is to deceive those onlooking squirrels, or to lead squirrels who arrive later on a wild goose chase, searching for stashed food to steal where there isn't any.

This sounds like either sophisticated behavior, or a fun story.

Do squirrels actually pretend to bury food?

If so, is there any scientific evidence that it works?

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It looks like the answer is yes, they do pretend to bury their food to keep other squirrels from getting at it.

Dr Michael Steele of Wilkes University in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, and colleagues, whose research is highlighted in this week's New Scientist magazine, observed eastern grey squirrels, Sciurus carolinensis, in Pennsylvania and Connecticut using the tactic.

When acorns were placed near to squirrels at the two sites they engaged in pretend burying activity 13 per cent and 22 per cent of the time respectively.

They were more likely to do so in the autumn and when other squirrels were within 66ft (20m) of them.

Source

The study that this information comes from is called,

Cache protection strategies of a scatter-hoarding rodent: do tree squirrels engage in behavioural deception?

and is unfortunately paywalled.

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