Area squirrels looking for missing acorns
| By SHARON HONG, Staff writer
First published in print: Monday, December 8, 2008
This fall has been a season of high anxiety for squirrels.
With a squirrel population boom this year, the furry creatures started to harvest acorns prematurely, state Wildlife Pathologist Ward Stone said. By September, most of their dietary staple was eaten.
"I can see a lot of squirrels all over the place hopping around and acting very nervous," Stone said. "They're on the move this time of year, but this is more than one usually sees."
Stone noticed the absence of acorns in August, while he was on a walk. On subsequent trips to look specifically for the seeds produced by oak trees in Columbia County, "we couldn't even find caps from the tops of the acorns," Stone said. In addition, he has received letters and e-mails from listeners of his weekly radio show on WAMC, "In Our Backyard," expressing concerns about squirrels behaving erratically and sharing observations of fewer acorns.
People in Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania also have noticed a dearth of acorns, the Washington Post reported. Although Stone said there are areas like the Catskills where acorn production appears normal, the decrease elsewhere is limiting the food supply for other creatures too, including chipmunks, turkeys, deer and birds.
Gerald Andritz, a forester with the state Department of Environmental Conservation, linked the shortage to environmental factors during pollination and flowering.
"Wet weather, freezing or dry weather can all affect the success in white oaks of producing acorns," he said. Pollen dissemination lasts for only three days. During flowering, the oak also depends on the right combination of warm and cool weather.
Some years, trees produce bumper crops, called mast years. Other times, oaks bear no seeds at all.
"This is a perfectly normal occurrence," Andritz said.
At the Landis Arboretum in Esperance, Director of Horticulture Fred Breglia had another theory — an influx of forest tent caterpillars that feast on oak and maple leaves.
"The past three years there was constant defoliation by the caterpillars," Breglia said, "This stressed out the trees, so there could be a correlation." He said global warming may be a factor, though he agrees there is no present danger to the oaks.
Meanwhile, squirrels have been roaming about still in search of food, often with lethal consequences.
"I see increases of the number of squirrels getting hit on the roads" Stone said. He said a transporation department worker in Westchester told him he roadkill is claiming 25 to 50 squirrels a day, when normally he would only see one or two a day. "This year a lot of them are young squirrels," Stone said.
Hungry and less-mature squirrels are also more vulnerable to predators. In November, Stone saw an increased number of fishers with squirrels in their stomachs. He said the squirrels will be weaker and easier to catch as winter progresses.
On a brighter note, Stone said the scarcity of the nuts could curb the spread of Lyme disease. The population of mice and other rodents that eat acorns will go down, diminishing the number of hosts for disease-carrying ticks.
Sharon Hong can be reached at 454-5414 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.