Why there might be fewer squirrels next year
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.
Gray squirrels will have to search far and wide for acorns this fall.