Beech Trees and Beechnuts — and Passenger Pigeons

While on a winter walk in the woods recently, I came upon a stand of American Beech trees. They are easily identified, even in the winter, by their smooth light gray bark. (When my brothers and I found beech trees in our wanderings as kids over 60 years ago, we saw the bark as an invitation to pull out a pocket knife and carve initials – as countless others have done.)

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Some of the beeches in the forest of Eliza Howell are large, among the taller trees in the park. They can grow as high as 80 feet.

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In the shade of a forest, beeches develop tall straight trunks with a crown of foliage on top.

There is one American beech tree I paid particular attention to in 2017 that is found among the scattered oak trees inside the road loop in the park. It has the same smooth bark, but, because it is in the sunny open rather shaded like those in the forest, the shape is very different. It is a spreading tree rather than a single straight trunk. It’s many branches are both vertical and horizontal and the huge crown reaches nearly to the ground.

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It is this spreading beech that I watched last year as it produced thousands of beechnuts.

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Beech trees are slow-growing trees. They may be 40 years old before they produce nuts and 60 years old before they produce them in large numbers. Beech trees are reported to have years of abundant nuts every 2 – 3 years; 2017 was a year of abundance for this tree.

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The small beechnuts are edible by humans and consumed by many mammals and birds.

The beechnut was a favored food of Passenger Pigeons. Though it has been extinct for 100 years, the Passenger Pigeon was still found in very large numbers in Michigan 150 years ago. American Beech trees can live as long as 300-400 years and, while I do not know how old the oldest ones in the park are, some of these trees may have been living here in the days when Passenger Pigeons were hunting beechnuts.

The beech is one of my favorite tree species in Eliza Howell Park for several reasons, one being this connection with a magnificent bird that I will never see.

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