My ‘squirrelly’ wife is collecting walnuts

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If you call my wife “squirrelly” this time of year, she won’t take offense. She’s been collecting walnuts for two weeks and will continue for several more.

We’ve got several mature walnut trees on the edge of the yard, and this year they have produced a bumper crop.

The competition

The problem is that gray and fox squirrels collect walnuts as frantically as Linda does. If she gets a late start on a given day, the walnuts disappear, and she must wait until the next day.

Being out competed by squirrels usually puts her in a foul mood. When she sees a squirrel scampering across the yard with a big walnut in its jaws, she mutters words I can’t print in a family newspaper.

Squirrels, of course, are in the midst of their fall feeding frenzy. They collect and store walnuts, acorns, hickory nuts and beechnuts for the long winter that lies ahead.

When nut crops fail, squirrel populations plunge.

For Linda, on the other hand, nuts are a gourmet food item. She uses them in recipes for breads, cakes, and granola bars. Though she can buy nuts at a grocery store, Linda prefers wild nuts, especially those from our own backyard.

In the grand scheme of things, of course, Linda’s impact on squirrel food is insignificant. She may collect a few hundred walnuts each fall, but there are tens of thousands within a hundred yard radius of the house.

Nutrition

In addition to squirrels, many birds and mammals rely on nuts and wild berries. Fruits of trees and shrubs are collectively referred to as “mast.”

Fleshy fruits and berries are “soft mast;” nuts are “hard mast.” Crabapples, grapes, cherries, and even poison ivy berries are sought by a variety of birds including turkeys, grouse, and woodpeckers.

Sweet, fleshy persimmons will soon ripen. Birds strip ripe persimmons from trees, while coyotes, foxes, raccoons, skunks, and opossums gobble up those that fall to the ground.

The flat football-shaped seeds that pass through these mammals’ guts are recognizable in their scats. Soft mast usually disappears quickly in the fall. One day a tree hangs heavy with berries, and the next day the fruits are gone.

That’s especially true after a flock of cedar waxwings moves through.

Hard mast triggers a competitive fall feeding frenzy among squirrels, chipmunks, deer, bears, turkeys, mice, jays, woodpeckers and nuthatches. Squirrels bury most of the nuts they collect just an inch or two below the leaf litter.

Months later, guided by smell and memory, they relocate many of their hidden treasures. Birds such as jays and nuthatches that store nuts for winter use usually rely on memory and visual cues to relocate hidden food.

Wildlife thrives

Forgotten nuts give rise to a new generation of trees. Acorns, the fruits of oak trees, are the most important form of mast in the eastern deciduous forest. Where oaks are common, wildlife usually thrives.

The shells of walnuts and hickory nuts are extremely hard and difficult to crack. Squirrels and other rodents gnaw through the tough shells. Bears simply crush them with their powerful jaws.

Even nuthatches and woodpeckers can find the weakest seam on a nut and hammer it open.

Turkeys rely on their muscular gizzard to grind up the shells. Linda uses a hammer on the butcher block.

To make bird feeders more attractive, I collect and crack the harder nuts before putting them on a tray. This allows smaller birds such as chickadees and titmice to eat these high-energy foods.

Because deer, squirrels, turkeys, woodpeckers, nuthatches, and jays love acorns, they make an ideal addition to any backyard feeding station.

Buying nuts

If collecting nuts seems like too much work, Vermont-based www.acorno.com sells red oak and pin oak acorns for $3 per pound. Expect 60 to 80 acorns per pound.

If you decide to collect or purchase acorns for wildlife, understand that you are creating a hot spot for all kinds of wildlife, including bears.

If there are bears in the area, do not offer acorns until late December when bears have retired to their winter dens.

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Scott Shalaway, who holds a Ph.D. in wildlife ecology from Michigan State University, writes from his home in rural West Virginia. A former faculty member at Oklahoma State University and the University of Oklahoma Biological Station, he has been writing a weekly nature column for newspapers and freelancing for magazines since 1986. He can be heard on Birds & Nature from 3-4 p.m. Sunday afternoons on 620 KHB Radio, Pittsburgh, or live online anywhere at www.khbradio.com, or on the Tune-In radio app. Visit his website at www.drshalaway.com or contact him directly at sshalaway@aol.com or 2222 Fish Ridge Road, Cameron, WV 26033.

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