Most of us who grew up in this area, I would imagine, are possessed of vivid memories of being around the kitchen when our mother or grandmother would spend countless hot, humid and sweaty hours in front of the stove canning various vegetables and other foods for future consumption. It was a summer-into-fall ritual that never seemed to end.
The result, of course, was usually a pantry neatly stacked with sealed jars containing pickles, jellies, beets, beans, tomato sauce, fish, chicken; sustenance for months to come. It was — and still is — a resourceful and frugal way to preserve the fertile bounty of the summer growing season and extend it into the cold harsh winter when fresh foods become harder to find. I don’t remember referring to it as such, but our mothers were in the business of caching.
Cache (pronounced “kash”), for our purpose, is defined by Random House as “to put in a cache; conceal; hide.” The term — used as both a noun and verb — stems from French Canadian trappers who took a word with Latin origin and made it a slang of their own to mean a “hiding place for stores.”
We are not the only creatures who store food. Caching (biologists often call it hoarding) is a fairly common behavior in the animal kingdom, a way to preserve the excess for future use. Remember that hamster you had as a kid? When you cleaned out its cage, there would be the inevitable pile of dried alfalfa pellets buried under those wood chips — its cache. Arguably the most well-known hoarding critter is the squirrel. Who among us hasn’t at least heard of squirrels gathering acorns for the coming winter?
Even great beasts practice this behavior. Bears often cover their kills with dirt and debris after satisfying their immediate hunger needs only to return days later. Alligators habitually bury large prey under water to feed on in the coming days and weeks.
Among the birds, some are renowned cachers. Jays of all stripes are famous for hiding acorns and other pieces of food under leaves or poked into soft ground. Black-capped chickadees will dart into your feeding station, grab a sunflower seed and then dart away, often to find a hiding place for the seed.
Nuthatches can often be observed taking bits of suet or seed, then stuffing them into bark crevices.
Easily the most visually stunning display of caching among North American birds has to be that of the acorn woodpecker, a bird of the Southwest. If you have ever traveled the foothills of the Sierras, you have no doubt seen its handiwork in dead trees, fence posts or wooden siding. It seems the bird toils its entire day drilling coin-sized holes, gathering acorns from oak trees or stuffing said acorns into those holes. A guy named Dawson wrote of encountering a huge ponderosa pine in the San Jacinto Mountains east of Los Angeles in 1923. The tree was pockmarked with approximately 50,000 acorns.
There is a reason the shrikes are sometimes referred to by their colloquial name, butcher bird. These odd predatory songbirds have a ghoulish habit of impaling small prey — usually birds or mammals — on tree thorns or the barbs of wire fencing. Excess meat is thus stored for future consumption up to eight months later, according to researchers. I’ve encountered a few of these larders in the wild, some quite fresh, some almost petrified.
Peregrine falcons practice a similar, if not quite as morbid, strategy. The raptors leave bird carcasses scattered on rooftops in downtown Fargo. The Forum (my employer, and where The Pioneer is located) building is not immune. I’ve witnessed the storing of dead birds for many years now and noted the falcons returning to consume them.
It takes a remarkable “place memory” to recall the location of buried or hidden caches among such birds.
For us, it’s just a matter of walking up to our basement shelves and pulling down a pint of canned salsa. Both achieve the same noteworthy objective, that of retrieving nourishment that has been previously put away. In so many ways, we are not that far removed from the creatures around us. Caching is merely another behavior we share with the rest of nature.