Which came first, the acorn or the squirrel?
Whichever you prefer, both will be doing exceptionally well this year as acorns fill the forest floor and squirrels’ stomachs. For both species, 2010 is a mast year.
“The term mast year refers to a year with an abundant mast crop, mast being the generic term for the fruits of forest trees,” explains Kenneth Jolly of Maryland Department of Natural Resources’ Forest Service. These years mostly depend on climatic variations. But oak trees are fairly regular, he says, “since they produce a heavy acorn crop on average every third year, and most other oaks produce a good crop every other year.”
The self-fertilizing trees drop their fruit to the forest floor, where foraging animals eat many never-to-be baby oaks.
“The primary effect of mast years is the benefit of abundant food for the many species of wildlife that eat acorns, such as deer, squirrel, bear and birds,” Jolly says.
“Acorns account for 25 percent of a deer’s diet in the fall,” Kenneth says.
“Squirrels should do well this fall, winter and spring due to the abundance of acorns,” reports Pete Jayne of DNR’s’ Wildlife and Heritage Service. Thus “fall and winter survival should be good.” Predators that feed on squirrels many have worse luck, however, as squirrels’ shorter foraging times leaves them less distracted and exposed.
Oak trees aren’t the only forest species likely to produce more offspring than usual this year.
“Going into the spring breeding season in good condition should make for big litters and good survival of young. So, a good acorn crop means our squirrel population will increase until at least this time next year,” Jayne anticipates.
As Jayne says, “This is a great time to be a squirrel.”