I’ve been spending some of my time feeding and observing the squirrels, chipmunks, and bluejays that inhabit my yard. Each has its own style of gathering food, storing it away, and protecting itself from harm, and all three survive.
Squirrels seem to be happy wanderers. They spend a lot of their time playing with each other. The competition within their species appears to be rather gentle. A minor bite to another’s tail–which appears to be mostly fluff, anyway–seems to be about as direct as they ever get. Their senses don’t seem as keen as those of bluejays or chipmunks. Squirrels seem to find their food almost by accident, as if it was incidental to their play. If they don’t immediately eat it, they hide it–squirrel it, if you prefer–often so poorly it gets stolen by chipmunks and bluejays.
Bluejays have the best eyes (of the three) by far. They can easily identify a peanut from about 50 feet away. When they find one, they shake it to be sure there’s a nut inside. They can tell a large one from a small one. Some have even learned to engorge a small nut and then carry a larger one away in their beak. They have the advantage of flight to quickly remove themselves from danger and to expand their foraging area. They are highly alert to movements that could mean danger. When they hide food, it tends to be in tree-limb clefts that are too high and insufficiently strong for a squirrel to reach, or on top of window frames too high for a person to reach. But, they build their nests in places humans go, if the bluejay hasn’t seen a person there recently.
Chipmunks appear to have the best array of senses. A chipmunk can detect a peanut by scent about three times farther away than a squirrel can (birds don’t seem to have a sense of smell). Chipmunks can see better than squirrels, if not as well as bluejays. They also seem to have a better memory than either squirrels or bluejays. If a chipmunk sees four peanuts and can carry away only one or two, it remembers where the others were. I know this because I’ve watched a chipmunk go back to where a peanut had been before it was stolen by another. While squirrels tend to bury their excess food, chipmunks carry it off to their burrows. (In my mind’s eye, I see vast caverns filled with chipmunk booty, like Tolkien’s dwarves had.) While squirrels spend their time in play, chipmunks stick to the workman-like gathering of food. Their extensive burrows keep them relatively safe, warm, and well fed. If you ever see a skinny chipmunk, it’s a juvenile, not starving. Between their constant foraging and burrows, chipmunks just might last longer as a species than humans.
Each has its own natural gifts, just like different poker players do. If you think of the squirrels as loose, passive players, that sounds about right. Likewise, the bluejays seem to be loose, aggressive types who hope to swoop down, steal a pot or three, and escape before being caught. Chipmunks are the work-a-day players who end the day with most of the chips by being solid, dependable workmen. But, I suspect the squirrels have the most fun.