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    No Acorns? Apocalypse?
    By Justin Gerke | December 1st 2008 03:58 PM | 15 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    About Justin

    I'm interested primarily in quantitative and evolutionary genetics, genomics, and biotechnology....

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    Squirrels are also facing an economic crisis.  Apparently, acorns are disappearing all over the country...or at least on the East Coast.  I know some fellow turkey hunters on the East Coast have reported a very spotty acorn crop.  Supposedly it's not just acorns, but hickory nuts as well.  This is very bad news for woodland creatures.  Acorns are a mainstay of their winter diet and are a valuable source of protein after the grasshoppers die in first fall frosts.  No acorns or hickories means less food for squirrels, turkeys, etc.  That in turn means less food for owls, coyotes, and so on.  If this year really is worse than most in terms of acorns, it will be interesting to see how wildlife numbers respond.  Animals are very resourceful, but there is only so much to eat in the winter.   

    At first, you might think that this acorn crisis is happening because we have somehow altered the ecosystem in which we live and now we are watching it fall apart.  The latter may be true, but I don't think it's because we're short on nuts.

    Whatever the problem is, it didn't hit Central Missouri.  I spend most of my free time in the woods, and I noticed no lack of nuts.  In September I spent two days hunting squirrels in thick foliage by listening for the sound of their teeth grinding on hickory nuts high in the trees.  After finding their general location by sound, I could pinpoint their exact spot by watching leaves shake as bits of nutshell fell to the forest floor.

    While turkey hunting, I have paid special attention to acorns... if you find the acorns, you find the turkeys more often than not.  On the land I hunt, the acorns were so plentiful and widespread that the turkeys were all over the place.

    Two weeks ago I picked up fifty pounds of pecans from underneath a tree in the MO River bottom.  Definitely no shortage of nuts there. 

    To the Squirrels:  Although this may seem like the end of the world as we know it where you are, I assure you that there are still plenty of nuts in some parts of the continent.

    Still, there is a general trend of an absence of acorns.  Why could that be?  The article linked above goes through some reasons.  Off the top of my head I came up with some of them:  One reason is that not all oak trees produce in an annual cycle, some only produce once every two years or more.  Also, nut trees tend to boom and bust.  For example,  one year we'll get 200 pounds of pecans off a single tree, then for the next two years we'll get none.

    The weather can also mess things up.  Two years ago here in MO we had a late spring frost.  It froze the buds and flowers on many plants.  Entire fields of winter wheat were destroyed, and vineyard harvests went bust.  The acorn crop was also really bad, and wild turkey numbers dropped accordingly.

    This acorn disappearance reminds me of the honey bee's colony collapse disorder:  a mysterious disappearance with no clear explanation.  Right now, the simplest explanation for spotty acorn production is that a combination of the known variables hit at the right time.  That's sort of like when both broods of cicada cycle to all breed in the same year and create a huge mess.  (The last time that happened in MO there were so many cicadas that you couldn't see the bark on the trees).  It may seem like an apocalyptic plague, but is really due to a few stars aligning in the right way at the right time.  One year of bad acorns makes for a bad spring turkey season, but won't end the world.

    If this acorn trend continues for a few more years, then I'm going to start building that concrete bunker in my backyard.

    Comments

    I live in Marlton, New Jersey, and noticed no shortage of acorns either. I found plenty of acorns from several species of oak trees, as well as an abundance of beech and hickory nuts. I wondered if the shortage of acorns in other areas could be due to the increase in gypsy moths we've been seeing in the east: defoliated trees expend their energy on leafing out again, rather than producing acorns?

    jgerke
     I'll actually be apartment hunting in New Jersey next week so maybe I'll take a look for myself.  I hadn't heard about the gypsy moths...what else are they effecting?
    We live in Newton, Iowa. Have a Burr Oak behind our condo that has always produced enough acorns to keep us slipping and sliding out to our car. This year we have had hardly any acorns and I am certainly curious as to what is going on.

    Hank
    I had a trip back east this past week and managed to squeeze in some hunting time in the Tiadaghton State Forest (PA)  and the one thing I saw plenty of was squirrels and turkey tracks - and acorns too.   What I didn't see were any deer.   PA ecologists working for the state have taken to experimenting with a reproduction model - births and accidents (from hitting deer) in a matrix which decides how many licenses they release.   Obviously they are thinking in fairly large grids so one mountain is not an accurate barometer but it wasn't all that much fun and I can't be sure they weren't better off just picking a number.   I know two camps up there with land weren't allowing members to shoot any does no matter what the state said about overall numbers.

    It was nice to take my rifle for a walk, though.  One guy I know got one so I canned some up while I was there and brought it home in my luggage.
    jgerke
    Some of my best experiences have been on trips where I come home empty-handed.

    Lots of Turkey tracks eh?  I'll be looking for places to hunt in the East this spring.  Is that a place where I can go in on my own with a pack, or do I have to pay for a guide through some camp or club?
    Hank
    I think the only time you can't camp in there is deer season.   Otherwise it's state game lands so you can just go and hang out as long as you want.   A compass is useful this time of year but in the spring the sun is out a lot so it's no problem finding your way around.   

    Really wilderness places like MT I have used a guide but if you just want to know where to go and hunt, my dad lives at the base of it (when I go, I cross the creek behind his house and just go up) and has hunted it for 60+ years, so he can tell you right where they are.    The downside to that is he makes it a little too easy - he really does know right where they are by now.  It's just a question of huffing and puffing up the mountain to go get them.   When you get to a switchback up there you will come across a part we literally call 'the turkey trail' and you will see it and think 'I bet there are turkeys back there' - and you will be right.
    jgerke
    That sounds like a really sweet deal!

    No apartment yet, although I can report that it is very cold in Jersey right now.
    jtwitten
    World ends.  Squirrels hardest hit.
    adaptivecomplexity
    The only thing squirrels are good for is cleaning up acorns (I know Justin will disagree, but I have no intention of tasting squirrel meat), which they didn't do in my yard this year. And I had a hell of a lot of acorns. 

    Mike
    jgerke
    If I had a dollar for every time I've heard, "that's great meat; what is it?" ....

    Hank
    If I had a dollar for every time I followed sentences like that with "That's what she said."
    jgerke
    well-played.
    I have been told that, in addition to acorns, oak trees are a source of yeast for genetics research. Or, was making random stops at oak trees in the Smoky Mountains a snipe hunt?

    jtwitten
    There is a new CNN article on the acorn shortage.
    Last year in 2008, we had to have our yard raked because there were so many acorns. Never saw anything like it and we were reading of the acorn disappearance on the East Coast at the same time. We were watching this year, 2009. Disaster. Not even one acorn anywhere here in Central Ohio. No one's seen any for the first time anyone can remember. We live in a heavily treed lot with whole families of squirrels that we've done everything to discourage, but this year there aren't half the squirrels as always and the ones we do see are thin and small. Something's definitely going on.