Field Notes:
Nuts for Now and Later

~by Jim Eagleman

The noise on the roof is telling me that acorns are ripening and the fall mast crop is busily being harvested. Mast refers to the annual crop of naturally occurring fruits and nuts. It is further divided into soft mast fruits like dogwood berries, rose hips, sassafras, and persimmon; and hard mast like beech and hickory nuts, walnuts, and acorns. Together they provide food, nutrients, and protein for a variety of wildlife like deer, turkey, small game, all the rodents, woodpeckers, and many songbirds. The lipid-rich value of these fruits and nutmeats, as they are consumed now and into the winter, is significant.

This high fat diet coincides with the annual fall migration of many birds that require long distance fuel. Contrast this with the high sugar diet of summer berries of songbirds when they are more sedentary and on the nest. Without the annual mast crop, survival of Indiana wildlife, generally speaking, would be worse off. And both gray and fox squirrels—busy from dawn to dark—are the best examples of animals that capitalize and exploit the hard mast, as nuts are consumed now and stored for later.

Watch a squirrel and you will observe its busyness with its attention to detail and where nuts are falling. Nuts may be eaten on the spot. Look to see if its cheek pouches are stuffed and where it heads to next. Burying nuts for late fall and into winter is what we know squirrels do. They find them due to both smell and recall. The well-developed mammal brain has a better sense of a memory than what first thought. This fact and many others are due to research projects that help us understand the miracles and mysteries of the wonderful natural world around us.

You may have wondered how it is that many questions we have about animals are addressed? How have we come to know what we know about wildlife? They live secretly, remotely, and with no help from mankind. How is it that we have all this information? And is data ever upgraded and edited?

I can attest that the manpower, time, and effort to document animal activity and nature in general is conducted most likely by students. Students, both undergrad and graduate, provide a researcher or professor with information that is used to help delve into many mysteries. I know because years ago, I was one of these lowly students who worked for free, suffered immensely due to long hours, chilling temperatures, and poor working conditions, all for what the professor said would be considered at grade time. I don’t mean to indicate I was abused. No, we did it because we wanted to witness firsthand what was happening. Looking back, I can’t think of a better way to learn. And I loved it!

An investigating academic project involves a proposal, budget, site, boundaries, time to observe, what to watch for and record, and a report back with accurate details. Local information is also gathered: like weather, air and soil temperatures, wind speed, time since last rain, etc. Comfort and nourishment were important necessities, at least to me. Since all projects took place outdoors in all seasons, I needed to be warm and dry, have plenty of food and liquids, good binoculars, notepads, and a comfortable place to sit. A pleasant research partner can also help. Who you worked with seemed as vital as how long you were out. Periodic reporting of findings was important to the team leader, and to us. We wanted to know how our contribution helped. Unfortunately, we saw a lot of student work that never reached a final report stage.

What did we learn? Nothing earth-shattering or drastic.

I recall a mast survey and research project to watch what animals besides squirrels were consuming the fall crop of acorns. The “star of the show,” as a professor called it, was the blue jay. Jays, those raucous and loud members of the crow family, we learned, were just as busy as squirrels in finding and transporting acorns. Photos revealed jays with packed throats, the crop, and cheeks full of acorns as they flew away. Where they headed was important. They stashed several nuts into holes in trees, fallen logs, and—like squirrels—buried them in the ground. Multiple cache sites were visited—a process called “scatter-hoarding”—usually in forest edges and small clearings. And yes, they did come back for them later. But as we suspected some of the nuts weren’t completely recovered. As we value the squirrel for starting trees to grow where they had not before, we must include the blue jay.

Another study by other students indicated that jays can determine how long each specie of acorn can be cached without germinating, since nuts become rancid with age. The white oak family which produce acorns that often germinate early in the fall and early winter are consumed earlier and stored less time than acorns from red oak family. They germinate in late winter and early spring.

Good to know. Mysteries solved, and now I could appreciate the jay for more important jobs than just raiding nests, eating baby birds, scaring away other birds at feeders, and generally being a loud and noisy pest.

Like a voter, the more we know, the better. Like a conscientious land steward, the more we learn, the better we can coexist on this blue marble, floating through space harmoniously with nature.