Junior Naturalist: Acorns

We’ve had an explosion of nuts around our house! Oak nuts, that is, more commonly known as acorns. We can’t walk down the road right now without hearing the crack! and thunk! of acorns dropping nearly a hundred feet from the sky. If we didn’t know before that many of the trees lining our road are oaks, we certainly know now.

Wild turkeys, blue jays, chipmunks, and squirrels have been taking advantage of this noisy bounty. Squirrels have been known to chuck the nuts from tree branches — yes, that’s right, throw acorns — to break open the hard outer casing and expose the sweet nut-meat inside. (If you’re walking underneath the branch at that particular moment, you can be forgiven for wondering if the squirrel was aiming at your head...) Squirrels also bury acorns in the original dirt cellar, as do blue jays.

Virgil has been acting like a little chipmunk or squirrel himself — although it’s his pockets he’s been stuffing with the plump nuts, not his cheeks. (This display of common sense means he’s avoided the stomach-ache he’d otherwise get if he ate raw acorns.) And as far as I know, he hasn’t been digging holes and burying acorns for mid-winter meals. But because of the growing pile of nuts in our entryway, he’s noticed that acorns come in different shapes and sizes. Some are long and egg-shaped. Their caps are elongated, too; the knob where the acorn once attached to the tree occupies the same position as a pom-pom on a winter hat. Other acorns are round and wear their caps like jaunty berets. Still more are small little fellows and leave their trees in twinned pairs, joined at the tips of their caps.

More “nutty” facts:
• The white oak can grow to a height of 100 feet or more and live as long as 600 years. Both the acorns and the lobes on the leaves of the white oak are rounded.
• Northern red oak and black oak both have egg-shaped acorns and lobed leaves that come to a point, but black oaks have smaller, more deeply lobed leaves.
• As the name suggests, the leaves of the scarlet oak turn brilliant red in the fall. Scarlet oaks are smaller than white or northern red oaks. Their acorns are smaller, too, with caps that cover about one-fourth of the nut.
• Oaks don’t start producing acorns until they are about 25 years old.
• Oaks are what is called a “masting” species: An individual tree may not produce a crop of acorns every year, but every few years it will produce a bumper crop — as many as 7,000 acorns!
• Gray squirrels are more likely to eat the acorns from white oaks and store the acorns from black and red oaks. Acorns from white oaks are easier for the squirrels to digest than acorns from black and red oaks, which contain a high level of tannin (the same stuff that turns tea brown). However, acorns from black and red oaks are higher in fat, and so are more nutritious than white-oak acorns. In one of those wonderful miracles of nature, burying the higher-fat, higher-tannin acorns helps reduce the level of tannin and gives the squirrel an extra nutritional boost. (If it can find the acorn...)

If the snap and pop of falling acorns and the crunch underfoot is any indication, we’re having a “mast” year for acorns. That makes one seven-year-old and a lot of squirrels very happy.

Learn more

• “Foliage Finder: Identify the Northeast’s favorite trees” (AMC Outdoors, May 2009)
Junior Naturalist: What’s black and white all over (with a spot of red)? (August 2009)

Great Kids, Great Outdoors” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Kristen Laine.

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