My backyard is a shady, little, flat place; mostly covered with fallen leaves and moss. I often dally by the window to check on the wildlife and enjoy the trees and the little brook.
This morning a gray squirrel, the first I’ve seen for months, was a few feet from the steps, quickly patting the ground with alternate paws. She finished with a couple of quick sweeps, left and right, to hide the fresh earth with leaf bits. What was she doing?
She went down into the long grass, searching, and came up with a round, dark acorn-sized object in her mouth. She scratched at several places until she found a soft place, quickly dug a little hole, and deposited her find. She filled the hole, tamped it down, and swept detritus over it.
I watched out the window as three similar morsels were found and buried. Then the squirrel moseyed down to the brook and disappeared. I realized there was no way I could find the caches to see what she so skillfully buried. Mushrooms, maybe?
As I went back to my housework, I realized that we both were doing housework. Her house is her entire home range. I also have a home range, and we both take occasional longer trips. Most of what I need is close by: mushrooms in the woods, edible wild plants, delicious deer meat from a neighbor, vegetables from the garden, and almost everything else from local stores. I carry my loot into the kitchen and “bury” it in the fridge, freezer and cupboards.
We seem to be in another “mast year.” Mast means tree seeds like acorns that are eaten by wildlife. There is a puzzling thing about mast. Sometimes oaks and other trees in an area “agree” to cut back on production for about three to five years. How in the world do trees coordinate this, and why? There are theories; maybe combinations of theories.
Is weather a factor that limits acorns for every tree? Recent research finds that, amazingly, underground fungal mycelia carry chemical news from tree roots to tree roots. Red oaks, the most common oak around here, take two years from blossom to acorn. Does the magic fungus message say, “reduce flowers” or “don’t ripen acorns;” and all the oaks make few or no acorns?
Why do oaks limit acorns for about three years, and then make so many it stunts their growth? Acorn-eaters like squirrels, turkeys, mice, and others, tighten their belts and produce fewer young. When the oaks have starved the eaters down to a few, they agree.
They all go for broke, dropping more acorns than the eaters can possibly eat, (predator satiation) and plenty left over. The effort pays off in more new trees. It pays off for the eaters, too, in the next year: lots of baby squirrels, mice, ticks.
Then the oaks get their reward. Their bottom line is reproduction. This last summer hundreds of little three-year-old red oaks were tall enough to be harvested into hay bales with the grass. I don’t think the cows are pleased.
It could be worse. According to a Sept. 5, 2019 article by Ethan Tapper in The Charlotte (Vt.) News: “Populations of many wildlife species reliably spike following a mast year. A local example of this is when sugar maple, white pine, red oak, red and white spruce, and others all ‘masted’ simultaneously in 2017, leading in 2018 … to an extreme abundance of squirrels.”
Thanks to a reader
In the September column, I included a photo of a sphinx moth, asking for help identifying it. Delia Mohlie replied: “Greetings from Waldoboro. Perhaps you’ve already received an ID for your moth, but in case you haven’t, I’m guessing it is a gallium sphinx moth. I looked it up in the ‘Peterson Field Guide to Moths,’ by David Beadle and Seabrooke Leckie.”
Thanks, Delia, for your guess identifying the gallium sphinx moth that I pictured in the September column. I also think it looks like the picture you enclosed, and thanks for the reference to the Peterson moth guide that you used. I will buy one. May your ramblings be rewarding.
(Nancy Holmes prowled Linekin Neck in Boothbay as a child, then an Illinois bottomland while earning a master’s degree in wildlife management. Once back in Maine, she raised children and kept assorted animals, wild and domestic. She and her Carolina dog roam their woods in Newcastle. Write to Holmes at email@example.com.)