“Acornucopia”— and Wildlife Benefits

“Cornucopia” being abundance or profusion, vast numbers of acorns might be called “acornucopia.” Eliza Howell Park is home to many productive oak trees and the acorns seem especially plentiful this year.

There is a great variety of oak trees in the park. On an afternoon walk on September 19, I was noting the varieties of acorns and collected these examples in a very short period of time.

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Acorn production varies from year to year and from species to species. Overall, 2018 is a bountiful year. Some trees have as many acorns as I ever remember seeing.

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One of my favorite oaks, a type of red oak, is a large tree with several low hanging branches filled with acorns that fit my mental image of the archetypal acorn.

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For many wildlife, an abundance of acorns means a valuable food source as winter approaches. Dozens of mammals and birds eat acorns. Acorns make up about 25% of the diet of White-tailed Deer in the fall. An abundant acorn crop often means healthier deer heading into the breeding season.

This stag, which crossed the EHP footbridge right before me one day last fall, may well have been foraging for acorns.

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Rabbits, raccoons, opossums, even foxes, eat acorns. And squirrel consumption of acorns is so well known that I need not comment.

Many of the mammals feed at night, but it is easy to watch the different birds getting their acorns. The greatest in number are Blue Jays (see “Blue Jays Harvesting Acorns,” August 27, 2018). They, along with Red-bellied Woodpeckers and American Crows, pick the acorns in the tree. Grackles, on the other hand, feed on the ground under trees for the fallen ones. Jays crack the acorns open with repeated pecks with their beaks; grackles have a sharp ridge in their beak (keel) which they use to open the shell.

Some birds eat acorns whole and let their gizzards do the work of grinding the food. Wild Turkeys, birds that eat many acorns, have been found in EHP in recent years.

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Wood Ducks also eat lots of acorns. They will be leaving the park soon, heading south for the winter, but they are still around now and are often on the banks of the river, where their nutrient sources include acorns.

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Photo by Margaret Weber

Every year, in late summer and fall, the presence of acorns calls my attention to the number and variety of oak trees in the park and I spend some time trying to get to know them better. It is not easy to identify some of them by species name, since there are so many different species in the eastern U.S. and oaks do hybridize.

I recently collected a few acorns, each with a leaf from its tree, for more leisurely study at a later time.

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We have all heard that “mighty oaks from little acorns grow.”

A few acorns do grow into large trees, but most of the many, many thousands of acorns present in Eliza Howell right now serve other valuable purposes: food for wildlife and an opportunity for me and others to admire, enjoy, and learn.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Marcescent Oak Leaves

During walks in the park during the very cold first week of January 2018, I found my attention drawn to trees that still retain their leaves despite the fact that we are deep into winter.

It happens every year, the realization that there are a number of trees in Eliza Howell Park that retain their leaves long after they turn brown and long after the leaves of other deciduous trees have fallen. One obviously does not need to know the scientific term for the phenomenon of withering but not falling off (marcescence) to observe the reality every winter.

Most of the trees in the park that retain their leaves are oak trees. This winter there are a few maples near the entrance to the park that have some withered leaves in early January, but it is an every year occurrence to find leaves hanging on oak trees far into winter.

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Leaf retention typically occurs in smaller younger trees. Large, mature oaks of the same species drop their leaves earlier.

As reflected in the next two pictures, January leaves can be found on trees of more than one oak species.

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A good place to find several leaf-retaining oak trees is inside the road loop, about half round from the Fenkell entrance.

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Marcescent leaves may gradually be dropped (blown off) during the winter or may hang on till spring. It might  be interesting for me to choose a tree or two this year to monitor and note when the leaves are finally down.