Where are all the acorns this year?
Look around and you'll be hard-pressed to find even one acorn resting under most of the region's mighty oak trees.
"There are literally no acorns in the woods," says W. Matt Knox with Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.
It's being considered one of the worst acorn years in more than a decade for Virginia and West Virginia, and the research can prove it.
THE ACORN SHORTAGE
The fluctuations in acorn production is often referred to as masting. Sometimes there a good years, or bumper crops and sometimes there are bad years.
Virginia Department of Forestry Research Program Manager Jerre Creighton said, “Acorn production varies widely – from nearly zero to a quarter million or more acorns per acre. Different locations, years, species and even individual trees produce extremely different crops, and heavy ‘bumper’ crops occur only every two to seven years.”
Reports gathered from Virginia's 2013 mast (acorn) survey confirm this year's shortage as well as the ups and downs.
The data is based on estimates of the percentage of oak tree crowns that have acorns. The survey takes place along established routes where approximately 40 marked trees are inspected.
Percent of 40 White Oak Trees with Acorns - Virginia
The technique of estimating the percentage of the crown with acorns was adopted in 2007 as part of an attempt to standardize mast indices among states in the region.
WHY SO FEW ACORNS?
Researchers admit it's impossible to pinpoint one specific cause that would explain the shortages from year to year. There are many factors – such as weather, insects and disease – that collectively influence acorn development from the time of flower initiation to acorn maturity.
Gary Norman with the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries say "most flowers seem to be aborted between the time of initiation and pollination."
A number of things could cause that. Late spring freezes and high humidity during pollination are primary causes. We had both of these during the past year.
Summer droughts, high temperatures or insect infestation can also cause shortages.
" In addition, research has shown that the inherent cycles between bumper crops and light crops may be an adaptation to allow the trees to restore their resources following a bumper crop," says Norman.
Knox says there's also the X Factor. "I always tell people, there's an X factor. There's something we can't account for, that makes some years a boom year, some years being bust years, but most years being average years. This is by no means an average year."
It takes one year to produce a white oak acorn and two seasons to produce an acorn from a red oak tree. If the acorns depended on the past 2 year's weather, they didn't have a chance.
2012 brought the summer of record heat, drought and the derecho. This year, flooding rains during the spring and early summer may have also stunted the growth.
POOR ACORN YEAR = GOOD HUNTING
A poor year for acorns can often translate to a good year for hunting.
Jeff Phillips runs Star City Whitetails, a regional hunting website. Hunters from around the area are sharing their tips on how to get the best hunting locations during the shortage.
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"The strategy would would be to hunt the field and if you got apples and corn or something like that," says Phillips. Based on past years, he says the deer are likely going to travel in herds and feed at the edges of fields or in open locations.
Deer and bear are most certainly impacted by the lack of acorns this year, and have been seen coming out into the public eye in search for food. However, the smaller animals such as the squirrel are often impacted most by the shortage.
"Squirrels have a much smaller home range than deer, in the order of several acres. If they can't find food, they'll starve. So what you see is squirrels that almost migrate. They just get moving looking for food. "
Acorns are rich in fat, soluble carbohydrates and energy, which are important nutritional needs that contribute to the animal’s body condition, survival, harvest rates, reproduction and, eventually, population status.
The roaming range of black bear and wild turkey can increase dramatically in years with mast failures, and long-range gray squirrel movement can be significant as they search for acorns.
Fortunately, other food sources such as hickory nuts and persimmons have been abundant in the forests this year.
SIGN OF THE UPCOMING WINTER
For centuries it was thought that trees may have predictive powers, suggesting the more acorns that developed, the snowier and colder the winter would be.
With advanced weather forecasting, this has proven to be a poor assumption on many occasions.
Below is a table comparing the seasonal acorn crop count for Virginia and the amount of snow measured during the following winter at the Roanoke Regional Airport.
|Winter 2007-08||Poor Crop||4.9"||Below Average Snow|
|Winter 2008-09||Poor Crop||1.5"||Below Average Snow|
|Winter 2009-10||Average Crop||43.1||Above Average Snow|
|Winter 2010-11||Above Average Crop||10.4"||Below Average Snow|
|Winter 2011-12||Average Crop||6.1"||Below Average Snow|
|Winter 2012-13||Above Average Crop||18.3"||Average Snow|
As you can see there's little correlation between the years with high acorn counts and snowy winters. In fact, the two of our recent snowy winters had poor to average acorn crops leading up to the above average snow years.