Outdoor Roots – Mast Boom Means Wildlife Boom
Story and Photos by Dave Moreland
If you have been in the woods this season then you have heard the sound: crunch, crunch, crunch. Every step in the forest produces this crunching sound. Normally, the sound is created by boots stepping on dry leaves, but this year the sound is caused from boots stepping on acorns, lots and lots of acorns. Water oak acorns, white oak acorns, striped oak acorns, cherry bark oak acorns, and live oak acorns are everywhere; the mast crop this year is super abundant. It is especially noticeable in the Morganza Floodway. The crunching sound can be heard in the woods, city parks, on sidewalks and in yards. This abundant crop has been the talk of not only hunters but of everyone who has oak trees in their yards; it even made it to the front page of the Baton Rouge newspaper. The common term to describe this acorn phenomenon is “bumper crop.” The 2011 acorn crop will provide food for many species of wildlife well into the new year.
Oaks are divided into two groups, the white oaks and the red oaks. This division of oaks is based on differences in the leaves, the wood and the fruit. The fruit (acorns) is the main focus of our story. White oaks flower and produce acorns, in one growing season; red oaks flower in the spring, but do not develop acorns until the second growing season. Pollination is delayed in red oaks, and acorns falling to the ground this year from a red oak are from the spring flowers of 2010. White oak trees in Louisiana include: white oak, cow oak, overcup oak and post oak. Common red oak trees in Louisiana include: water oaks, striped oaks, willow oaks, cherry bark oaks, southern red oak and shumard oak.
Many species of wildlife utilize acorns as food: white-tailed deer, foxes, turkeys, quail, ducks (especially wood ducks), raccoons, rabbits and the chipmunks in southeast Louisiana, gray squirrels. Acorns are also utilized by many species of song birds. Of course, feral hogs readily eat acorns and compete for this food with the native species. Because of this high use by wildlife, hunters seek out areas with abundant oak trees for their hunting activities. Feeding and planting food plots for deer are common practices of hunters in Louisiana, and an abundant acorn crop generally results in hunters seeing fewer deer in their food plots and around feeders. The smart hunter knows to leave the stands at these locations and get into the hardwood drains and ridges where the deer will be eating acorns. I counted the acorns in the stomach of a deer harvested in the Morganza Floodway, and there were over 600 water oak acorns inside.
Benefits to wildlife from an abundant acorn crop are many. Deer will increase in body weight during years when acorns are available and will have good fat reserves for energy during the winter months. When spring arrives and green-up occurs, deer will be healthy and in much better condition than if acorns had not been available. As productivity increases, does that may have only been able to produce a single fawn the previous year may produce twins or even triplets. The antler growth of bucks will be enhanced since the bucks are in good shape and do not have to use the spring nutrition to catch-up with their body growth and maintenance.
This can also be said for other species such as turkeys and squirrels. Squirrels generally produce two litters of young a year, a spring crop and a late summer crop, and when mast is abundant, the spring crop is generally excellent along with the late summer crop. Increased squirrel production means more squirrels for hunters come October. Body weights of spring gobblers are good due to the abundant mast crop, and hens should be in good condition for the spring nesting season.
These bumper crops of acorns do not occur every year. Generally, there is some acorn production every year, acorn production is dependent on the weather conditions in the spring when the oaks are flowering. Flowers are wind pollinated, so a wet spring can create problems for pollination. Furthermore, a late spring freeze can have a serious impact on the flowers as well. A late freeze that extended into the New Orleans area in 1993 resulted in no white oak production that year and no red oak production in 1994. Hurricanes prior to the acorn fall can also impact the trees, destroying the branches prior to the acorns maturing. The red oaks receive a double hit, the current season acorn production is impacted along with the acorn production for the next season.
One way for a landowner to prevent a total mast failure on his property is to maintain a diversity of oak species, both red oaks and white oaks. During the spring the oaks flower at different times; generally the cherry bark and water oaks will be the first to flower followed by the white oaks. While an early freeze may impact some species of oaks by maintaining a diverse composition of oak trees in the forest, chances are some of them will produce fruit for the wildlife.
While the crunching sound is somewhat annoying and makes for constant clean-up around the house, the benefits from this abundant mast crop are many and should result in good healthy game populations next season.