The mysterious oak

picture of where a squirrel had been digging

Oak trees are vital to our native food web, especially for the animals who rely on acorns as a food source. Have you ever paid attention to the number of acorns falling this year or in past years? If so, have you noticed any change from one year to the next? There are certain years where there is a boom in the number of acorns produced: these are called mast years. Other years there is a significant lack of acorns produced. Several things may play a role:

  • different environmental factors like heavy rainfall, drought, unusual high/low temperatures, and early season frosts
  • different families of oak – white oak and red oaks – have different production cycles (3 months vs. 2 years!)
  • the insect and animal consumption of acorns
  • size and location of the oak trees
    • smaller shaded trees don’t have as good of a chance at producing as much fruit as larger trees in full sunlight

In Andover last year it seemed there was an abundance of acorns produced but this year many parts of town seemed to have few acorns while on Martha’s Vineyard there has been an abundance. When acorns are scarce, it has an effect on the wildlife that rely on the nuts for food. White-tailed deer, wild turkeys, black bears, wood ducks, blue jays, squirrels, mice, and voles all rely on nuts as one of their food sources.

This year we have noticed squirrels rummaging around trying to find food for winter. Squirrels usually bury the nuts in the ground during abundant years; their sense of smell allows them to find where they have buried their nuts easily during the winter. This winter I’ve noticed squirrels have not had a lot of options for food. You can see in the photo above the marks where a squirrel had been digging to find food. In the spring squirrels can feed on buds from plants and flowers but after that, they have to rely on nuts. Some hunters have pointed out that deer this year are thinner than usual. Have you noticed any changes in these animals that tend to eat acorns?

If you were planning on participating in this year’s 375th challenge and would like something to look for while on your walks you could look for acorns around the trails. You could also try to see if you can notice a change in the squirrels behavior or other animal behaviors who eat nuts.

For more information on oak trees provided by click here and another by Mass Audubon here. For more information on mast years, here’s another blog you can refer to here. For more information on squirrels in Massachusetts provided by Mass Audubon click hereThis article talks about the slow hunting season with the deer on the Vineyard. If you would like to read more on oaks and their production of acorns you can look at University of Missouri’s website here.

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