By October, fall is in the air. We will feel cooler temperatures leading to our first frost, hear the noisy blackbirds as they gather into flocks and watch the squirrels gathering acorns from the mighty oaks.
Acorns are part of our mast crop. In most wildlife books, acorns are considered the most important part of the mast crop.
In the fall, during a 30-day period, a black bear will put on 30 pounds. These pounds are put on by feeding mainly on acorns.
To go into its winter den in good condition, a black bear should have about 4 inches of fat across its back. During the years when acorns are plentiful, this is an easy task; however, in years when acorns are scarce, the bear has to search for food.
Everything in the wild feeds upon acorns, from the little field mouse to the mighty elk and everything in between that walks, crawls or flies.
Squirrels will start the harvest even before the acorns fall from the trees. A walk in the woods surely will produce a place where a squirrel has cut the branches containing the still green acorns, allowing them fall to the ground, where they can be eaten.
Next would be the blue jays, who also feed heavily upon acorns. However, jays help to distribute oak trees. After taking the acorns, the blue jays stash them. In one study done in Virginia, a family of blue jays stashed away more than 150,000 acorns from 11 oak trees.
Blue jays have been known to fly up to five miles to reach a good supply of acorns.
Of course, acorns grow on oak trees and, in Pennsylvania, we are blessed with many types of oak trees. The two groups are red and white oak.
The white oak is the chief of all the oaks. An old white oak's bark could be up to 2 inches thick, and the tree could attain a height of 150 feet and 8 feet in diameter.
I double checked when I read that some white oak trees have been known to live 800 years. The American Indians used the acorns of the white oak tree for food.
White oaks have acorns that mature every year, while those of the red oaks take two years. This doesn't mean that red oaks do not have acorns every year, just that you'll find both immature and mature acorns on the same tree.
Two other oaks that are plentiful in Penn's Woods are the chestnut, or rock, oak and the scrub oak. To some, the scrub oak, which grows in the most inhospitable, dry and sterile sites, is regarded as a "weed." However, to wildlife, it's a source of food and cover. The scrub oak grows to a height of about 10 feet, with acorns that mature every year to help feed wildlife.
In the June 1989 issue of "National Geographic," I read an interesting article titled "Life In A Nutshell," which is about the many insects that depend on acorns to survive.
The first insect to invade the acorns is the acorn weevil, which bores into the acorns while they still are on the tree. When the acorns fall and hit the ground, they are attacked by a community of herbivores, predators, decomposers and parasites that actually form a miniature ecosystem in the nutshell. Few acorns escape to become mighty oak trees.
The acorn moth will lay her egg in an acorn shell that has been eaten out by either the acorn weevil larva or the filbert worm. After the caterpillar hatches, a web is spun across the shell's opening to keep other insects out. In the spring, the caterpillar emerges and begins looking for a sprouting acorn to feed upon.
Have you ever wondered what happens to these discarded acorn shells? In checking, wasps, snails, mites and even an ant colony could become tenants. There is a tiny ant called Myrmica that lives inside hollow acorn shells, with about 50 adults and young in one shell. If the shell becomes too crowded, the ants expand the colony into nearby shells.
The next time you're in the woods, take time to closely examine the acorns at your feet. Yes, someday an acorn could become a large tree, but it more likely will provide food or cover for some member of the wildlife community.
Bower retired after 34 years as a wildlife conservation officer for the state Game Commission. He has published several books about his experiences. Questions and comments may be sent to him at 153 Redington Ave., Troy PA 16947.