Caching: Remember or Die!

Would you stake your life on your memory?

For many of us, probably not! But if forced to, how would you deal with a situation where the ability to remember where you put some food would be the difference between life and death?

Well, if you could mimic a chickadee, you would simply grow more memory cells to make sure you don’t forget!

Amazing…and true…here’s how it works. Each fall, chickadees begin caching seeds by the thousands. By storing seeds, they ensure they will have something to eat during harsh weather and when natural foods become scarce in the future.

In a behavior called scatter hoarding, each seed they collect is individually hidden in a unique location. Common storage sites include under tree bark, dead leaves, clusters of conifer needles, in knotholes and even under house siding and shingles.

The amazing thing is that chickadees can accurately remember the location of each and every one of the seeds they hide for months to come!

It all has to do with their hippocampus, the region of the brain that stores locational memories. In chickadees, it is proportionately larger when compared to birds that do not cache food. Not only is it larger, it even increases in size each autumn and shrinks back down to its original size by spring. More space…more memories, then wipe them clean when they are no longer needed. Pretty darn cool!

Other birds share this same caching behavior, including nuthatches, titmice and jays to name a few. Favorite targets for them to cache from your feeders can include sunflower and safflower seeds, tree nuts and peanuts.

As a nod to this month’s National Peanut Day (September 13), be aware that Jays love to cache peanuts! They are especially fond of peanuts in the shell. They bury them in the ground and are known to cache up to 100 or more of them in a single day, emptying your feeder in no time. Watch for them to make repeated trips to your feeders, then to fly off (up to two miles!) to bury their nutritious treasure.

And they will remember…and survive!

Be sure to check out the WBU Nature Centered Podcast episode, “Sharing Survival Strategies.” Our entertaining hosts, John and Brian, will share the best ways to attract the widest cast of caching characters to your own backyard this fall.


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