As our planet begins the dark half of its yearly journey, most wild creatures are on a quest for calories. If they’re lucky, they will find a supply of oil-rich nuggets, each one enclosed in a rot-resistant case. I speak of nuts, of course, and indeed, the fortunes of many forest dwellers are hitched to those of the nut trees.
Last year was a bust for nuts. This is the way of oaks, hickories, and beeches; they produce nut crops in pulses, with very high numbers in some years and almost none in others. The populations of nut-eaters rise and fall in response.
While I have a grudging appreciation for nature’s unsentimental economy, I am sentimental myself. Last fall I felt especially sorry for Fretful, the personable porcupine who frequents my neighborhood. I let it be known that if anyone found an acorn bonanza on their travels, Fretful would be very happy to demonstrate how porcupines eat them. Acorns arrived. Fretful obliged.
This year the oaks and beeches in our region are having what appears to be a moderately productive year. Because oaks are rare in my Marlboro woods, I decided that I would practice a little redistribution of wealth. I went to Mount Wantastiquet to find acorns for Fretful.
I did indeed find acorns, though not many. The leaf litter beneath the oaks had been churned by many paws and hoofs. Gray squirrels and chipmunks cursed at me and at each other as they attempted to claim nutting territory. Undeterred, I scoured the earth for acorns, and nearly overlooked another nut-forager, a miniature porcupine.
Porcupines in their first summer are among the cutest creatures. This one had a coat of black fur so long she appeared to be double her actual size. She worked earnestly at shelling a large acorn. She had no intention of abandoning her prize to flee, but she did stand up on her hind legs, raise her quills, and turn herself broadside to me. I said hello in my most non-threatening voice and pretended interest in acorns. She relaxed, turned back to face me, and continued her meal.
I decided that to have any luck gathering acorns I would need to be present just as they fell from the trees. On the walk back to my car, with maybe a dozen acorns in my bag, I heard the thunk of acorns falling from a tree. Sure enough, beneath that tree I found many. They continued to fall while I gathered, a suspicion growing in my mind. When an exposed nutmeat landed next to me, I knew the truth -- the tree was not dropping acorns, a squirrel was. I had gathered a bagful of nuts that had been rejected by the inspector.
When I encountered Fretful the next afternoon, I presented a handful of the acorns. He snuffled each deeply and thoughtfully. At last he selected one, sampled the contents, and dropped it. He had to analyze several more handfuls before he found an edible acorn. I had indeed collected mainly duds. Fretful and the squirrel were in accord.
During a year like this, when the acorn and beechnut crops are moderate, it will be the rare nut indeed that is not handled by at least one vertebrate. Some will be stolen and re-cached a number of times. A similar phenomenon is occurring in the courtyard at the Bonnyvale Environmental Education Center right now, where Chinese chestnut trees produce nuts that thud to earth in every breeze, each coveted by multiple interests. I am interested in gathering them for the wildlife that lives in the nut-poor woods of Marlboro.
Meredith is interested in chestnuts roasting on an open fire. Joan wants some chestnuts in their prickly husks to remain on the ground to show to school groups. Visitors stuff their pockets. Luckily for the neighborhood squirrels and chipmunks, most of the nuts fall into the untamed tangle of vegetation on the north side of the trees, areas that humans are reluctant to enter.
While some of my human competitors may feel that nuts from trees planted for people are wasted on squirrels, I have the moral high ground on this one. Here’s why: Once upon a time, the American chestnut was a dominant tree in much of its range, a fast-growing, tall, straight tree that produced many nuts each year. In 1904, the chestnut blight arrived in this country on imported Chinese chestnuts.
By the late 1920s, the American chestnut was functionally extinct. The loss of these trees must have had an immediate and enduring impact on the forest ecology within the range of the chestnut, for even where oaks and hickories replaced the chestnuts, nut crops were no longer reliable.
Some day, mighty chestnuts may again grow in eastern forests, thanks to the development of a blight-resistant hybrid. Until that time, I feel the least I can do is make sure the nuts from the blight host are distributed to the wildlife species that have been deprived of their native feast.
You would think chestnuts would be an excellent substitute for the acorns I failed to gather for Fretful. While Fretful is adventurous socially, he is very provincial in his food preferences. I have offered him chestnuts, peanuts, walnuts, almonds, hazelnuts, hickory nuts. ... He spurns them all. Only acorns will do.
I have been scheming about possible places to find unclaimed acorns. Given the determination of the many species that depend on them, I think my chances of success are slim. Maybe an oak in the middle of a giant parking lot? If, in your travels, you find a source of neglected acorns, I know a porcupine that would be very happy to show you what he can do with them.
Patti Smith is a naturalist at the Bonnyvale Environmental Education Center. The View From Heifer Hill, a feature on the nature of our region, appears in this space the first Saturday of each month. Patti welcomes your feedback at email@example.com.