A vital grocery in the wildlife cupboard is acorns, and the success of the acorn crop in any given fall plays into how animals and birds live.
The abundance or shortage of acorns can even determine if critters live.
Numerous species utilize the seeds of the oaks as food. Acorns are an important food for several species. For squirrels, as an extreme example, acorn supplies are almost everything. As swings the status of acorn availability, so swings the ups and downs of squirrel populations.
This year, as found by an annual “mast survey” by the Kentucky Department of Fish & Wildlife Resources, the statewide roundup shows acorn production as mediocre at best. Both the production of white oak and red oak acorns was assessed as average.
Average acorn production as judged by wildlife biologists is when about 40% of all trees of that group (red oaks or white oaks) significantly produce acorns that year. By default, that means 60% of trees don’t yield a significant number of acorns in an average year.
A number of representative trees in different parts of Kentucky are checked for acorn production annually — the same trees each year. During some years there are obvious differences in the acorn crop from western to central to eastern survey areas. This year, however, the findings were more uniform across the state.
Even so, there typically always is a varying level of acorn production even in very localized areas. Pick a woodlot and you may find one healthy oak barren of nuts, while another oak of the same variety nearby may be loaded.
This year, apparently there aren’t a great number of acorn-heavy trees.
KDFWR biologist Cody Rhoden said white oak acorn yields this fall are about what they were last year, while red oak production is a little less than what trees of that group churned out in 2021.
One thing that does stand out about this year’s mast production is that acorns were unloaded by the oaks somewhat earlier than normal, perhaps two to three weeks earlier than the routine acorn drop, Rhoden said.
Anecdotally, I can attest that I saw some northern red oaks sprinkling their acorns on the ground beginning back in August, when that is rarely the case.
Several factors weatherwise seem to influence mast production, but it is highly likely that this season’s early acorn drop may have been a natural reaction to a significant summer-into-fall drought that has had a crispy effect on most of Kentucky.
Something else different is that squirrels have been cutting red oak acorn since these ripened enough to begin dropping. What’s odd there is that most red oak acorns are high in tannic acid content and are therefore more bitter to the taste of even wild critters. Squirrels usually shun these acorns until they have been on the ground for several weeks, allowing some of the bittering acid to leach away. Rhoden said some of the squirrels’ early attention on red oak acorns could relate to a lack of alternative foods. The production of hickory nuts, another important hard mast crop and a favorite of squirrels in late summer into early fall, was poor statewide this year, he noted.
In areas where there were few, if any, hickory nuts as well as a scarcity of white oak acorns, squirrels may have had to face a bitter truth and settle for the red oak acorns that were available. (Stuff that isn’t our favorite tends to taste better when you are hungry and there aren’t better options.)
Rhoden said the early acorn drop could play as an advantage this year for deer hunters, especially those hunting during later season conditions.
“The deer are pretty well locked onto acorns now, but with the early mast drop, a lot of those are going to get eaten up sooner than usual,” Rhoden said.
That translates to more deer moving more in search of alternative food sources. Biologists have long linked lower acorn supplies to high deer visibility and a resulting increase in hunter successes. On the other hand, when mast yields are highest and more acorns are on the ground, more deer stay cloistered in the woods and hunter successes tend to decline.
Rhoden said hunters should see more deer movement as this autumn’s acorn supply grows scarcer. He said that could apply to the popular firearms season (beginning Nov. 12) and most certainly to later hunting scenarios.
West Kentucky hunting seasons come and they go, and just gone is the early shotgun season for wild turkeys. The October shotgun turkey hunt ended Friday after a one-week run.
Turkey hunting via shotgun will be back in a later version Dec. 3-9. Meanwhile, archery hunting for turkeys continues — running concurrently with bowhunting for deer — all the way through Jan. 16. Crossbow turkey hunting is presently out, returning Nov. 12-Dec. 31.
Also recently closed is the early segment of the mourning dove hunting season. The dove season, as always, opened to typical fanfare on Sept. 1. The popular early segment ran through Wednesday, Oct. 26, although most attention to dove hunting is packed within the first couple of weeks.
Nonetheless, those relative few wingshooters who wish to pursue doves later in the year have their chances in two more season segments. The middle dove hunting period is Nov. 4-Dec. 4, and a late season segment follows finally Christmas Eve, Dec. 24-Jan. 15.
Regardless of whether anyone notices, the last day of Kentucky’s early hunting season for Wilson’s snipe comes Sunday. Snipe are one of those species that Kentucky hunters rarely pursue, but opportunistically some get taken by hunters out for other game. In that case, snipe can still be harvested during a late season Nov. 24-Jan. 29.
There is no particular link between bullfrogs and Halloween other than the fact that Kentucky’s long season for taking bullfrogs by gigging, shooting, fishing or grabbing tactics comes to an end Monday, Oct. 31, Halloween.
Elsewhere in Kentucky, Tuesday brings the Nov. 1 opening day of rabbit and quail hunting season. That’s in the state’s Eastern Rabbit and Quail Zone. However, in the western zone, the 29 westernmost counties, rabbit and quail hunting opens on Nov. 14 along with the statewide furbearer hunting and trapping season.