Where are the acorns?
December 1, 2008 1:55 AM   Subscribe

Where did all the acorns go? With reports of acornless oaks coming in from all over the U.S., what is a squirrel to do?

Oaks produce acorns according to a mast cycle, which is thought to be related to climate, but the exact connection is far from clear.
posted by afu (62 comments total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I love in the squirrel clip where the squirrel is laughing really hard and then suddenly he's weeping and going, "I never knew my father, I never knew him! No, I can drive, really, gimme my keys." I never appreciated how similar we are.

Acorn/squirrel recipes.
posted by From Bklyn at 2:19 AM on December 1, 2008

Jeebus! Just when I thought ACORN has gone away it turns out that acorns have gone away.
posted by twoleftfeet at 2:53 AM on December 1, 2008 [1 favorite]

He's not drunk! Someone turned up the gravity on the tree! He's fine, give 'em one more for the road!
posted by grapefruitmoon at 3:36 AM on December 1, 2008

I'm sure NOTHING AT ALL is wrong with the environment. Though maybe this will lead to a year in which no new humans are born.
posted by maxwelton at 3:39 AM on December 1, 2008

The Mystery of Masting in Trees.
Over far-flung areas virtually all the oaks of the same species, and perhaps more than one species, are already gearing up to produce the seed crop of the decade. Or not. In fact, there may be almost no acorns, and a substantial proportion of the wildlife will starve or have to eat something else. Such highly variable and synchronized reproduction is known as “mast-fruiting” or “masting.”
Good background article from American Scientist. Specifically discusses California oaks.
posted by ryanrs at 3:55 AM on December 1, 2008 [1 favorite]

Short version: synchronized lean years thin out the acorn predator population. The trees are colluding to fuck over the squirrels.
posted by ryanrs at 3:59 AM on December 1, 2008 [12 favorites]

Too much masting, and you'll go blind!
posted by slater at 4:09 AM on December 1, 2008 [1 favorite]

I noticed that pretty much every halloween pumpkin in the neighborhood had huge chunks missing. The squirrels must be hungry.
posted by R. Mutt at 4:24 AM on December 1, 2008 [1 favorite]

They've been ignoring the pleas of the maples.
posted by PenDevil at 4:26 AM on December 1, 2008 [6 favorites]

Report from my yard: Butternuts are still going strong, as are squirrels.
posted by DU at 4:47 AM on December 1, 2008

Acorns come and go. One year in Toronto we had so many of them that walking down the garden path was like one of those cartoons where they spread marbles underfoot. The next spring we had tiny oaks growing EVERYWHERE, even where there was no dirt. Then the next year, nothing.

Maples are similar but a bit less dramatic. We had no maple seed last year at all and this year there's loads.
posted by unSane at 4:47 AM on December 1, 2008

We had a bumper crop from our Spanish oak here in Texas about 4 years ago -- literally 4 inches deep in the flower beds -- look out while walking to the car -- I got hit on the head several times, -- and almost nothing since. We had a few last year, and this year, nothing. Might've been due to the giant hailstorm that knocked half the leaves off the thing in April. Or maybe they're colluding down here, too.
posted by Devils Rancher at 4:55 AM on December 1, 2008

No acorns at all here in northern New Jersey. The squirrels ate all our pears and were seen stealing garden tomatoes. The starling migration skipped us too--they usually arrive in a giant horde, and some pick acorns and drop them to the ground, while others eat the fallen.
So many are picked it sounds like rain. But not this year.
posted by hexatron at 5:14 AM on December 1, 2008

Heh, I was thinking about a post of this as well. Anyway, here's a story about missing acorns that came across my google research. Kinda fun, if you're into that kind of story-telling.
'Beasts of New York' via Jon Evan's blog.
posted by forforf at 5:29 AM on December 1, 2008

ZERO acorns from our huge white oak in Atlanta GA. We just realized this yesterday, and it's creepy to hear that the same has happened in Virginia, New Jersey, Long Island ... cue Hollywood!
posted by intermod at 5:32 AM on December 1, 2008

At one time, American chestnuts (C. dentata) was the dominant mast producer in the eastern deciduous forests. Highly edible, non-alkaline nuts comprising the majority of the individual trees... each large one produced 1 to 3 bushels of nuts per year.

In North America, American chestnuts flower in June, and are extremely reliable and very productive mast producers.

I've seen this acorn mast failure before, and can always tell it by the squirrel corpse count on the highway. One year... I think 1999, I counted 200 dead squirrels in the interval from the NC state line on US 19-23 near Johnson City, TN to Johnson City... a distance of about 20 miles. I stopped at 200 as it got boring. Not an acorn to be found that year, and the woods was picked clean of anything edible. In my experience, it happens every 3 to 4 years with oaks.

I used to give a lot of talks on American chestnuts, and used this example a lot. I think most modern folks have a hard time imagining how profoundly forest ecology in the east changed between 1904 and 1960, when the chestnut blight had pretty much eliminated the species from the overstory. (It still is abundant in the understory if you know what to look for.)
posted by FauxScot at 5:38 AM on December 1, 2008 [5 favorites]

This is why I love metafilter - I hadn't even realized this was literally going on in my own backyard till reading it here.

So, is it a bad idea to put peanut butter out for the squirrels? I live in VA near the area described in washington post article. Last year I raked up literally bags and bags of acorns. This morning, I found 5 acorn caps. I feel kind of bad for the little fuzzy-tailed rats.
posted by selfmedicating at 5:42 AM on December 1, 2008

Wanna see something really scary, google "Sudden Oak Death Syndrome" (SODS) and/or Phytopthera ramorum. A nasty, nasty little booger of a highly lethal tree pathogen that unlike other Phytopthera, can be spread airborne. There's a Forest Service task force keenly watching the eastern forests for its eventual and almost certain appearance. (First noticed in California, it is a non-specific pathogen, but seems to like oaks a lot.) It could be the 21st century's version of the chestnut blight. (Insert sounds of ominous music here.)
posted by FauxScot at 5:43 AM on December 1, 2008 [1 favorite]

i was in norther wisconsin a few weeks ago, near the chippewa flowage. there, the oaks had produced a bumper crop of acorns this year. the old timer at the lodge confirmed that there were more then usual, probably because it had been a wet summer. i even brought a bagful home, so if anyone wants, i could send you one.
posted by lester at 5:51 AM on December 1, 2008

What is a squirrel to do ?

Go nuts.
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 6:06 AM on December 1, 2008 [1 favorite]

I have at least an inch deep layer of acorns in my front and back yard here in NC. We had a couple of guys come by a month ago asking if they could rake up the acorns for hunting deer. If we'd have said no, we'd probably have three inches of acorns. Guess the acorn drought skipped us this year.
posted by lyam at 6:16 AM on December 1, 2008

The oaks are like Porsche, and the squirrels and the weevils are the hedge funds.
posted by krilli at 6:30 AM on December 1, 2008 [1 favorite]

How do you get an elephant up an oak tree?

Sit it down on an acorn and wait 50 years.
posted by netbros at 7:01 AM on December 1, 2008 [1 favorite]

So long and thanks for all the... what do acorns eat?
posted by bitslayer at 7:03 AM on December 1, 2008

Sunspots? This has been a particulary quiet year, especially since July.
posted by Araucaria at 7:07 AM on December 1, 2008 [1 favorite]

The next M. Night Shyamalan movie.
posted by jbickers at 7:12 AM on December 1, 2008 [4 favorites]

It's been warmer on average for years, which is good for saplings, so the oaks have probably been producing a lot of acorns. This year has been generally pretty cool so maybe they are taking a break. Some sort of built in thermometer plus how much energy is available for producing acorns. This year is slightly cool, plus low energy (from all the previous years acorn bumper crops due to warmer weather) has triggered a mass no-acorn year.
posted by stbalbach at 7:30 AM on December 1, 2008

The acorns are no doubt spending time with the bees.

we are so fucked
posted by stet at 7:35 AM on December 1, 2008 [3 favorites]

The next M. Night Shyamalan movie.

Actually I'm pretty sure it's the last one.
posted by tkolar at 7:39 AM on December 1, 2008

Lots here in N. Central Texas, not a bumper crop, but little squirrel-diggings all over my yard that mean saplings in the spring, and on my porch roof, it sounds like a light hailstorm when the wind blows.

For the acorn-deprived areas, I'm sadder about the consequences for things that eat squirrels (like hawks) than I am for the squirrels theselves, the nasty little buggers.
posted by emjaybee at 7:41 AM on December 1, 2008

I don't know about acorns, but I definitely have hickory nuts this year in my yard near Atlanta, GA. There aren't nearly as many as the last few years (my driveway isn't completely covered), but there are some. Maybe even the trees are sick of the nuts in this country.
posted by notashroom at 8:07 AM on December 1, 2008

Maybe Obama can spread the ACORNS around.

I slay me
posted by Devils Rancher at 8:13 AM on December 1, 2008

selfmedicating : So, is it a bad idea to put peanut butter out for the squirrels?

Depends on your definition of "Bad". If it includes you getting ready for bed and glancing out your back window to see tens of thousands of glowing eyed forms sitting silently... waiting, then yeah "bad" might be a word you could use.

Other words might be "plague", "hoard", and "squirrel cataclysm" (also known as the "squirrclysm")
posted by quin at 8:27 AM on December 1, 2008 [1 favorite]

"It's your world and I'm just a squirrel / Trying to get a nut to move your butt to the dance floor"
posted by porn in the woods at 8:39 AM on December 1, 2008

what do acorns eat?

Dead voters.
posted by chlorus at 8:40 AM on December 1, 2008

Let them eat walnuts.
posted by dilettante at 8:41 AM on December 1, 2008 [1 favorite]

Where did all the acorns go?

♫♬ Long time passing...
I want to know
Where have all the acorns gone?
Long time ago... ♫♬
posted by GuyZero at 8:50 AM on December 1, 2008 [1 favorite]

Short version: synchronized lean years thin out the acorn predator population. The trees are colluding to fuck over the squirrels.

Squirrels could respond by foregoing reproduction in lean years to reduce their food requirements, but such a strategy only makes sense if they can live through to a better day-- otherwise, a big risk of no squirrels at all.

And they do appear to be unique among rodents in their ability to wait things out, according to a recent study made for other reasons:

Lifespans ranged from three years for the mice, to 23 or more for common backyard squirrels.

They could also respond by hibernating early.

Cicadas come out in cycles of prime numbers of years in order to avoid predators (13 years and 17 years, depending on the population) and it would make sense for the oaks to use prime numbers, too, if their years of no mast were governed by an internal clock, but the excellent article linked by ryanrs makes a good case for environmental cues instead of an internal clock.
posted by jamjam at 9:25 AM on December 1, 2008

Last weekend I went for a hike in Frozen Head State Park. We traipsed through lots of fallen oak leaves, but I don't recall seeing a single acorn.

However, this year's bumper crop of falling black walnuts has left bruises on me and several of my offroad motorcycling friends.
posted by workerant at 9:32 AM on December 1, 2008 [1 favorite]

Sudden oak death syndrome (previously) does not kill all the oak trees. At my place there are perhaps twenty oaks of varying age and situation that have succumbed out of about 120 that I can easily see. Another ten looked as though they had it but are now green again. Most of the trees that have been affected are in the path of surface runoff (they are on flattish areas that have sheet runoff, or they're in ravines), though there is supposed to be an airborne route of infection.

Acorn woodpeckers are the main consumer of acorns at my place - there aren't any squirrels. The woodpeckers don't seem to want anything to do with trees that have died of SODS. They use dead, standing trees as "granary trees" where they store acorns. Of the twenty trees that have died at my place not one is being used as a granary. There is a tall dead maple that they're using for that, as well as an oak whose crown was broken off from windthrow.

This year there are quite a few acorns at my place and there are also lots of them in the town of Sonoma, California.
posted by jet_silver at 9:43 AM on December 1, 2008

This year the trees in my yards have gone insane--more acorns than I've ever seen. So much that there's a danger of stepping on some and rolling on top of them for a few feet (found that out the fun way). I assumed that this was happening everywhere, but it sounds like the opposite is true, which makes it even *weirder*.
posted by Benjy at 9:52 AM on December 1, 2008

selfmedicating : So, is it a bad idea to put peanut butter out for the squirrels?

Same general area - I have to sneak food to the squirrels because my neighbors hate me feeding them. Interestingly, the squirrels do not do destructive things to my house like they do to my neighbors (karma, bitches!!).

I toss peanuts into my yard (about a half acre away from my actual house), in the morning (so that whatever raccoons and whatnot don't eat it all up). They will also eat up birdseed - I had a feeder that quickly turned into a squirrel feeder but I decided to feed them further away from the main house.
posted by KAS at 10:06 AM on December 1, 2008

So, is it a bad idea to put peanut butter out for the squirrels?

Probably. Its difficult to just feed a specific wild animal. You would most likely just be feeding ants, mice, rats, and birds before a squirrel got a chance at it. You could buy a squirrel feeder or "seed" some walnuts. I'm pretty sure they can open walnuts.
posted by damn dirty ape at 10:09 AM on December 1, 2008

The only place where I've seen acorns of late is in the little islands of treed turf in the Wal-Mart parking lot near my work. It's odd that the little decorative trees would be making a better effort than their native brethren.
posted by grabbingsand at 10:42 AM on December 1, 2008

It was my understanding that squirrels actually help seed-nut trees propogate (burying the nuts, forgeting where they put them) - ?

“So, is it a bad idea to put peanut butter out for the squirrels?”

We’ve got the ones by us trained pretty well with that. Also other forms of nuts. I myself like firing walnuts or filberts at them with a (non-hunting) slingshot. The density of the nut means it will fly at, but not hurt, the squirrels. (I just toss it to them if they’re within arm range of course). Long odds on hitting one in the hands or chest since the nuts tend to have erratic ballistics, but we both seem to get a kick out of it.
Like a small bag of paper money falling out of the sky.
Also squirrel fishing is fun. I understand some people at Dartmouth were doing that. But you tie some fishing line or something - I find heavy carpet thread is best, since if it snaps it won’t hurt them - around a walnut and hang a nut out from a high place, perhaps on a stick, and hold it just off the ground. When they grab it you hoist them into the air, swing them to and fro.
Pretty fun stuff.
(We get up to some things at Rancho Smed. This one time, we stayed up late, like way past 11 pm.)
posted by Smedleyman at 10:44 AM on December 1, 2008 [3 favorites]

Because the fat little squirrels near my house are getting fed cashews by a certain person I live with?

Because my mother makes them peanut butter on bread?

(not squirrel-ist, just think it's funny... one of ours will come up and touch your toe ever so gently, and Oliver Twist you into feeding him)
posted by bitter-girl.com at 11:13 AM on December 1, 2008

biennial bearing or a late frost, who knows

cue internet hysteria
posted by sponge at 11:25 AM on December 1, 2008

FROM: The Bees
TO: Earthlings

So long, and thanks for all the acorns!
posted by blue_beetle at 11:27 AM on December 1, 2008 [1 favorite]

Last year I raked up a TON of acorns from just one tree in the front yard. And this year... nothing. I hadn't even thought about it until this thread. Definitely weird.
posted by ObscureReferenceMan at 12:10 PM on December 1, 2008

Awhile back the local parks department was hassling local Koreans for taking too many acorns to make mook.
posted by electroboy at 12:12 PM on December 1, 2008

I'm sadder about the consequences for things that eat squirrels (like hawks)

There's a hawk that lives on my block. I've never seen it take a squirrel but I have seen it chasing turtle doves and on two occasions I have found the remains of a bird it ate in my yard. I think the hawks will be OK.

Do foxes eat squirrels?
posted by smoothvirus at 12:22 PM on December 1, 2008

I've got acorns, and my squirrels are really fat; I wonder if that means anything, like we're in for a cold cold winter.
posted by Restless Day at 12:42 PM on December 1, 2008

"where have all the frogs gone" story re-hash, including vague ominous insinuations
posted by Fupped Duck at 2:13 PM on December 1, 2008

Acorns are just interstellar spacecraft for the migrating cosmic bees.
posted by robotot at 3:00 PM on December 1, 2008

Was squirrel hunting a couple weeks ago. Saw more hunters than squirrels. Didn't check for acorns, though.

didn't shoot no squirrels, either.
posted by Baby_Balrog at 3:13 PM on December 1, 2008

Isn't this pretty much the plot of The Happening, but for Squirrels?
posted by public at 3:18 PM on December 1, 2008

Ten bucks says this is somehow connected to all the missing honeybees.
posted by zardoz at 5:57 PM on December 1, 2008

There's a hawk that lives on my block. I've never seen it take a squirrel but I have seen it chasing turtle doves and on two occasions I have found the remains of a bird it ate in my yard. I think the hawks will be OK.

Some hawks eat mostly birds, and some eat mostly small mammals.

That said, our local redtails love to chase the pigeons.
posted by rtha at 6:20 PM on December 1, 2008

North Texas here. I've got a ton of acorns...but no squirrels. It's the weirdest thing. No squirrels. I don't know if the ducks have chased them away, or if the development has...but I have no fuzzy ground rats. It makes me sad. My son is almost 6, and the first time he saw an actual squirrel is when he and I went to the nature preserve to go hiking. It's really very odd.

On the upside, the ducks seem to be eating the acorns. (Who knew?) The wild geese are starting to arrive, and they'll eat them too. The only problem with having tons of giant birds in your yard eating the acorns is the massive amount of stinky goose and duck poo everywhere. I keep telling them I'm going to make duck l'orange and pate, but thus far, they don't seem terribly worried about it.
posted by dejah420 at 11:01 AM on December 2, 2008

You could get a pig and make prosciutto or parma ham or whatever they make from those acorn-fed pigs.
posted by GuyZero at 11:17 AM on December 2, 2008

For what it's worth, I don't remember ANY acorns on the hundreds of oaks on our property this year (Northern Delaware). Nor do I recall any hickory nuts. This is in sharp contrast to last fall (when a helmet was necessary to go outside!), and the squirrels have been A LOT more aggressive with bird feeders, stray seeds (the buggers are causing damage to our deck!), etc.
posted by JMOZ at 8:28 AM on December 3, 2008

To tie this to another season and region, in 2006, I launched a thread on Enviro-Mich related to failure of the acorn crop in Michigan. Several naturalists reported offlist a similar lack of acorns that year in south and central Michigan. Mast crops fluctuate, but obviously -- at times -- they may fail entirely. The subsequent 2007 crop was late and rather slight. The fall of 2008 brought early and massive drops -- so that acorns were available by the thousands at the edge of the pavement along every rural road in my vicinity, well into December.
posted by unblinking at 1:27 PM on December 3, 2008

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