Why there might be fewer squir­rels next year

The News-Times (Sunday) - - News - ROBERT MILLER Con­tact Robert Miller at earth­mat­ter­srgm@gmail.com.

If, in the next cou­ple of years, there seems to be fewer gray squir­rels sit­ting alertly un­der your bird feed­ers, tails and whiskers a-twitch, do not blame fish­ers and their full-bod­ied weaselly ways for their ab­sence.

Or coy­otes. Or owls and hawks. Or your next-door neigh­bor’s bark­ing dog.

Blame this year’s pal­try acorn crop. For sur­veys are show­ing few acorns in Litch­field County.

“We’re not see­ing any,” said Diane Swan­son, di­rec­tor of the Pratt Na­ture Cen­ter in New Mil­ford.

“There are def­i­nitely not as many as in past years,” said Cathy Ha­gadorn, di­rec­tor of the Con­necti­cut Audubon So­ci­ety’s Deer Pond Farm sanc­tu­ary in Sher­man. “It’s def­i­nitely not a mast year.”

But a few miles south, there’s hope. North­ern Fair­field County may have been blessed this year with enough acorns to keep the en­vi­ron­ment chugging along.

“What I’m see­ing is a good, healthy mast,” said Sean McNa­mara, Redding’s tree war­den.

The state Depart­ment of En­ergy and En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion sur­veys bear this out.

DEEP wildlife bi­ol­o­gist Michael Gre­go­nis said the agency sur­veys 12 lo­ca­tions in the state for their acorn crops each year. Each site has 25 red oaks, and 25 white oaks.

The DEEP rates each year’s crop on a scale of 1 to 6. The lower the number, the fewer acorns.

The Housatonic River Wildlife Man­age­ment Area in Kent and Corn­wall, scored a 1.9 this year. Hunt­ing­ton State Park in Redding nearly dou­bled that, at 3.8.

Jeff Ward, forester for the Con­necti­cut Agri­cul­tural Ex­per­i­ment Sta­tion in New Haven, said spring rains may have washed the pollen out of flow­er­ing oaks, ru­in­ing the chance of those flow­ers pro­duc­ing fruit.

“It may also be there was a frost when they were flow­er­ing,” the DEEP’s Gre­go­nis said.

East of the Con­necti­cut River, the acorn straits are dire. Gre­go­nis said the oak trees there — hav­ing been stressed badly by drought and two years of se­vere gypsy moth in­fes­ta­tions — pro­duced al­most no fruit this year.

“They’re strug­gling,” Ward said aid of those acorn-less trees. “They don’t have the en­ergy to pro­duce acorns.”

This mat­ters. Acorns may bop you when you hike and rattle the hood of your car, but they are one of the great driv­ers of the state’s ecosys­tems.

They feed a host of ro­dents, in­clud­ing squir­rels — gray, red and fly­ing — mice and chip­munks. Blue jays cache them for win­ter snacks. Crows eat them. So do deer. Om­ni­vores like wild turkey and black bear chow down on acorns as well.

In mast years — which oc­cur in five-to-seven-year cy­cles — oak trees pro­duce a huge amount of acorns, blan­ket­ing the ground with their hard-shelled, be­capped fruit. Squir­rels, chip­munks and mice fat­ten up and have lots of ba­bies. That means in the fol­low­ing year, there’s lots of prey for fox, coy­ote and rap­tors. The pop­u­la­tion evens out.

Gre­go­nis said the DEEP has found hun­ters harvest fewer deer in mast years. That’s be­cause deer, with plenty of food in front of their noses, tend to stay in one spot to feed. They aren’t forced to wan­der past hun­ters’ stands, or walk into fields to eat grass where they’re eas­ily seen and felled.

All those an­i­mals caching acorns mean the nuts get spread out across the land­scape. That in­creases the chance that at least one acorn, buried in some sunny spot, will take root and be­come a tree seedling.

Ha­gadorn, of Deer Pond Farm, said it’s a tes­ta­ment to the stub­born na­ture of oak trees that they will pro­duce hun­dreds of thou­sands of acorns in their long lives in or­der to pro­duce just a few seedlings that will grow to be­come trees.

“Imag­ine what would hap­pen with hu­mans if they did some­thing thou­sands of times, but only suc­ceeded twice,” she said. “Thank God trees are tough.”

Ha­gadorn said that oaks at­tract thou­sands of in­sects in the spring.

“White oaks, es­pe­cially,” she said. “They can be home to hun­dreds of species of in­sects.”

In turn, that means hun­gry song­birds mi­grat­ing north will flock to those trees for a much-needed meal.

“We have a sec­tion of white oaks here that we call Scar­let Tan­ager Row,” she said. “The birds just line up.”

Ha­gadorn said she has ad­vised peo­ple that, if they’re look­ing to plant one tree in their yards to ben­e­fit the en­vi­ron­ment, a white oak is a good choice. It feeds the world in a va­ri­ety of ways, she said, and pro­vides wel­come shade as well.

“It’s the epit­ome of a giv­ing tree,” she said.

Shan­non Tomp­kins / Hous­ton Chron­i­cle

Gray squir­rels will have to search far and wide for acorns this fall.

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