The cache decisions of scatter-hoarding animals are influenced by a number of factors, including satiety, food quality, number of competitors, and the risk of predation and pilferage. However, it is unknown how animals assess these variables. We investigated this process experimentally in free-ranging fox squirrels (Sciurus niger) by measuring the effects of nut characteristics and social context on nut-handling behavior and subsequent cache decisions. We found that a behavior involved in nut handling, the head flick, was correlated with nut quality, shell presence, the decision to cache rather than eat the nut, and the time and energy spent caching. In contrast, a 2nd nut-handling behavior, the paw maneuver, was correlated with the social context but not the cache decision, and may instead reflect a response to social competition. Our results suggest that fox squirrels assess nut quality using overt, observable nut-handling behaviors. The experimental study of these behaviors can help us understand how animals use information about food and the social context to make adaptive food-storing decisions.
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