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The impact of the poor acorn crop

I read with interest a press release by the Virginia Department of Forestry (VDOF) recently. It detailed the poor mast crop this year, and possible reasons why we are experiencing the near failure of trees to produce nuts. I will attempt to summarize it here with added insights from others, as well as myself.


As most hunters know, nuts are key food sources for most game animals. Bears love to eat nuts. Squirrels, turkey and certainly, deer, will consume acorns and other hard mast, as well. Oaks, particularly white oak trees, are not only very common in Virginia and in our area, but they are probably the favorite mast tree of the animals mentioned above.

In fact, according to VDOF and the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF) officials, “Acorns are rich in fat, soluble carbohydrates and energy, which are important nutritional needs that contribute to the animal’s body condition, survival, harvest rates, reproduction and, eventually, population status.  The roaming range of black bear and wild turkey can increase two- to four-fold in years with mast failures, and long-range gray squirrel movement can be significant as they search for acorns.”

Their press release goes on to say that when acorns are not available, deer and other animals turn to alternative food sources, which often puts them in conflict with us. Flowers, shrubs, bulbs for flowers, other vegetation and birdfeeders become the next targets. These animals may lose some of their fear as they move into subdivisions to find food. Deer may overbrowse some parts of their habitat so badly that the carrying capacity can be reduced, meaning that near future populations of deer may also find fewer food resources. VDGIF officials also note that black bears will den earlier when there are fewer acorns, and their fat reserves are noticeably less. Studies have shown lower cub survival, as well. When animals have to travel farther to find food, they are more likely to cross the paths of predators, to include humans. Turkey harvests and deer harvests are often higher in lower mast crop seasons.

So why was our mast crop a near failure?

The VDOF release stated that acorn production varies incredibly from year to year. Usually, we see bumper crops of acorns in cycles. Sometimes it is every other year, and other times it is up to seven years before we see a bumper crop of acorns.  Each tree can produce completely different numbers of acorns, depending on many variables.

Weather is a big factor. Flowers that create fruit or nuts can abort due to late spring freezes (we had this) and high humidity. We also had the humidity factor before flowers were pollinated. If summer conditions show to be a drought with high temperatures, or insects prey on acorns, then we also see sharply lower production.

Veteran hunters and biologists alike have noted what appears to be a cycle of trees producing lots of mast, and then seemingly saving resources to build up for another good crop several years later. We had really good numbers of acorns and other nuts last year, so perhaps this warrants some consideration.

I asked our local forester, Karen Snape, if the onslaught of cankerworms might have impacted the mast crop. She checked with VDOF Forest Health Program Manager Dr. Chris Asaro. He feels that because not all areas of the state had a horrible outbreak of cankerworms, and yet their mast crop also was poor, that the cankerworms were not the culprit. Last year, we had lots of cankerworms, too, he pointed out, and yet the crop was abundant. This would also defer the theory that perhaps the cicadas impacted the acorn crop. King George did not have the numbers of cicadas that some areas to our west did, and yet our mast crop seems to be nearly nonexistent.

Gary Norman, who works for VDGIF, noted that we saw similar mast conditions in 2008. So, this is not unheard of. Some areas of our state apparently do have some red oak acorn production. I have not seen any around here.

What I have noticed is fewer squirrels in the woods compared to last year. Also, deer are obviously not in the hardwood lots. They are frequenting areas where there is greenery on which to browse. Hopefully, we won’t have a hard winter. With lower food sources, the deer won’t have as much winter fat packed on, and other animals will also be operating on a leaner supply of food.

 

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