It is nuts that we went from feast to famine.
Last year, you may remember, there was a bumper crop of acorns that fell in your yard, on your windshield, and, if you didn’t seek cover, on your head! The overabundance of acorns, called a “mast” year, made for slippery walks in the woods, but very happy and well-fed wildlife.
What a difference a year makes!
This fall, one would be hard-pressed to find a surplus of acorns. News sources, including the Washington Post, Boston Globe, and Huffington Post, have sent out the alarm about the dearth of acorns and the possibility of a winter of starving squirrels, ravenous rodents, and not-so-well-fed wildlife.
In a really good year, one mature oak tree can produce a half a ton of acorns, though that tree is more likely in an average year to produce about 250 pounds of nuts. In one study done this year, tested trees were producing on average less than half a pound of acorns each!
Though it is common that a mast year is followed by a year of scarcity, this season’s yields are even lower than expected. One explanation may be that the heavy rains in the spring of 2010 reduced the pollination success of oak trees by preventing the wind-borne movement of the pollen. Another theory is that oak trees produce fewer acorns after an abundant year to limit the populations of animals that feed on their seeds.
Whatever the reason, the effects of the acorn drought will be felt throughout the winter season. The animals that will be hardest hit by the lack of acorns include rodents, chipmunks, and, of course, squirrels.
Scientists are estimating that a 90 per cent rodent kill due to lack of food is possible, as is a 50 per cent reduction in squirrel numbers. Other animals that are likely to be affected include turkeys, which can consume 50 acorns in one meal, and deer, whose fall diet consists of 25 per cent acorns.
And, in a food chain reaction, predators of rodent species, including hawks and owls, may also find their populations decreasing due to food shortage.
Many wildlife lovers are asking if they should feed the squirrels and deer. Most biologists would say no. Ultimately, nature will take its course and survival of the fittest will rule. Animal populations respond to natural conditions, and often food shortage is a way to deal with burgeoning populations. (And will anyone really complain about reducing the rat population?)
Mother Nature has done a small bit to ameliorate the situation. Many of us have noticed an abundance of black walnuts this year, which can supplement the diets of many of these animals.
Observers (and lovers) of nature need to learn to be as accepting of years of dearth as of years of plenty. During this time of Thanksgiving, it is a reminder to us humans to be grateful for our bounty, share what you have with those who have less, and be caring and concerned for our neighbors great and small.
Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown.