For the past couple of months, people in New England have been talking about acorns – or the near total lack of them. There just aren’t any, and what is surprising is how many animals are affected.
Last fall, there was what is referred to as a “mast year,” which means the trees put out a huge crop of seeds. The average oak tree in the northeast produced about 250 pounds of acorns. This year, each tree produced only about half a pound! Hiking in the woods, we usually have to be careful not to slide on the ball bearing-like acorns that fall onto the trails. Not so this year. In fact, I haven’t seen a single acorn on any of my hikes.
In September, we began seeing the bodies of dead gray squirrels on our roads. I mean lots of squirrel bodies. For a few weeks, it was as if they were just walking out into the roads and waiting to be hit. It was hard to swerve around them. The theory is that they reproduced like mad during the previous mast year, but with starvation looming in this lean year, many of them just died. The entire lemming-like scenario is just plain weird and I have yet to find an explanation for it.
It’s not just squirrels who will miss the acorns. Ground nesting bird and field mouse populations are likely to crash. The deer ticks that feed on the mice may also be more aggressive in biting humans.
No one knows why seed production varies so much from one year to the next. What is known is that such fluctuations are normal, even crashes like this one – the worst in 20 years.