Lounging near the campfire, you’re entranced by the antics of a cute chipmunk that’s clearly begging for a handout. While you’re distracted you fail to notice the grey birds behind you…who are stealing the bacon straight out of the pan while your head is turned. The camp critters that hang out with us are more than just freeloaders: they’re very clever creatures, and you may not want to underestimate them.
Chipmunks and Squirrels
Every kid that’s ever camped has joyously fed peanuts to chipmunks and squirrels, watching them stuff nuts into their seemingly inexhaustible cheeks. We often assume that small, short-lived creatures with simple social structures aren’t intelligent compared to larger, longer-lived ones, but in the case of these guys, we’d be wrong. Squirrels and chipmunks have strong spatial intelligence: they remember where they cached nuts and go back to them later, and can memorize the fastest routes up and between trees for a fast escape when they need it.
They also learn quickly by watching: once their buddy figures out how to open a food source, they’ll mimic those techniques. They also have some abstract reasoning: if they’re being watched, they’ll pretend to bury a nut and then slip it back into their cheek and hide it again later. And if they watch another one squirrel take a nut out of one pot, they’ll go to the other, correctly deducing that it’s less likely to be empty, and they’ll show no preference if no competitors are around. They’re more than just cute; they’re clever, too.
The potent smell that skunks can disperse is the camping equivalent of a nuclear weapon. Armed with this deterrent, they’ll often saunter unconcerned through a campground, knowing that only the most desperate predator is likely to mess with them. The exceptions are Great Horned Owls, which lack a sense of smell and love the taste of skunk. Skunks are omnivores, and their diet includes insects, smaller animals, and even bees; their thick fur protects them from stings.
Gray Jays are the campground equivalent of a street gang. They flock around mountain campgrounds in groups, aggressively stealing whatever they can and earning the name “Camp Robber.” They’ll team up to distract your attention while another swoops in for the grab, and are bold enough to grab food out of your hand when your head is turned. Their aggressiveness and street smarts are critical because they spend the entire year high in the mountains, staying through the winter when other birds migrate and the campground buffet of easy snacks is empty. Like squirrels and chipmunks, they’ll stash food, and are pretty decent about finding it later. And they’re faithful. Once they mate, the two never leave each other’s side.
Tiny but spectacular, hummingbirds are the souped-up race cars of the bird world, processing near-raw sugar from nectar and translating it into hyperactive hovering and zipping around (a hummingbird heart rate is around 1000 beats per minute). They’re fiercely territorial, defending “their” flowers and feeders against others. This is one creature you can feed if you want to hang up a hummingbird feeder at your campsite; the belief that feeding will delay their migration is a myth. But don’t be surprised if they don’t come to your feeder for a while. Hummingbirds have strong spatial memory for food sources, and return to the same flowers and feeders year after year. They may be slow to add a new stop to their rounds, but once they do, word will spread fast.
We all learn quickly that raccoons’ potent combination of cleverness and dexterous front paws help them get into just the most secure of food storage: coolers, garbage cans, just about anything short of bear-proof canisters. And they’ll fight with the bear canisters all night long. In areas frequented by people—campgrounds as well as urban areas, where human presence scares off the larger predators—their populations rise and their boldness increases. When they’re not near a ready food source, like your campsite, their more natural pattern is to hunt near water sources, snagging crayfish, clams, and insects as well as berries and roots.
If Gray Jays are rough-and-tumble street survivors, crows are the geniuses of the bird world—and sometimes the evil geniuses. They’re highly intelligent with complex social structures and the ability to recognize patterns. They can communicate the facial features of individual humans who feed them or capture them to other crows. They make tools, have language with regional dialects, and understand and communicate with analogies: many scientists put them in the same intelligence category of apes. They’ve long-since solved the mundane problem of how to find food both in the wild and around humans: by the time you read this, they’ve probably helped themselves to whatever you left unattended. Like the smart kid who’s bored in school, they can be prone to creating problems: collecting shiny things, taking apart an unattended camp stove, or tormenting the family dog just because they can and it keeps them entertained. Opposable thumbs may be the only things between them and world domination.
Few camp creatures evoke as much hatred as mosquitos, and with good reason. Their biting and incessant whining can drive us to distraction, and in many parts of the world they’re disease vectors. But at least we can admire the sophisticated systems they use to hone in on food sources: sensing the subtle increase in carbon dioxide from our exhaled breath, our body temperature, and various smells. Try not to feed them…and good luck.