Thursday, December 30, 2010

Squirrel's larder

Looking through my frost covered windows into the snowy backyard, the plump red squirrels looked more like fancy Gund stuffed toys than the animate creatures they are. This was a banner fall for red oak acorns, and autumn’s invasion of red squirrels and ground-feeding yellow-shafted flickers into my pin oak-black oak-chinquapin oak urban backyard signaled a good mast year for the city block. Mast production of red oaks was great throughout the Ozark Highlands this year, and in some parts of the state white oaks fared well also.

Squirrels like fatty red oak acorns, but if the white oak acorns are more abundant, they will eat more of them just after acorn drop. Recent research has shown that squirrels will only eat the top part of the red oak acorn (about 60% of it) to avoid the concentrated tannins at the embyronic end. Even though squirrels eat the bulk of an acorn, the remaining part can still produce a tree. Estimates suggest that 74% of all buried acorns are never found again. White oaks send out taproots days and weeks after they fall, while red oaks sprout the following spring. Since the tannins in white oak acorns are concentrated in the taproot, squirrels tend to eat them first, and store red oak acorns for the winter; so, in good mast years like this one in parts of the Ozarks, squirrels are fattening up for a productive spring.

Historically, before the age of active fire suppression and livestock grazing in the woods (followed by annual burning and grazing), much of the Ozarks was dominated by white oak, white oak-black oak, or even white oak-post oak associations. Due directly to the lack of fire and a long history of grazing following European settlement, tree associations in the Ozarks favored a red oak-black oak dominance. Livestock are very hard on white oaks. It has been suggested that the now-extinct passenger pigeons played a significant role in the propagation of white oaks in Ozark woodlands, and it is widely accepted that squirrels and blue jays are largely responsible for planting the woodlands in red oak and black oak. Good for flooring, but not as desirable as white oaks for wildlife food.

Today, nodding a backwards glance towards the early days of the age of extraction, some in agribusiness and conservation industry suggest that grazing cattle in woodlands is beneficial for both woodlands and for growing protein. Grazing cattle in Missouri's native ecosystems is terribly destructive, and because of a long history of grazing following settlement, we have thousands and thousands of acres of out-of-context, destroyed, jacked up, trashed out, depauperate, unrestorable landscapes (that aren't even worth burning unless you're managing for buckbrush, annual weeds, poison ivy and oak sprouts). Grazing has changed the face of Missouri's native ecosystems forever, and not positively. Grazing cattle in woodlands is as conscientious for biodiversity as clearcutting Amazonian rainforests to grow steak.


Anonymous said...

It's quite a battle as far as biodiversity and Missouri's woodlands...tough not to get down amongst the development and ignorance. I worked with an older forester who mentioned to me that he tells landowners there is nothing wrong with managing glades and woodlands for cattle...product of his times I guess. Although this individual has come a long way.

We have some land south of St. Louis that has managed to retain some woodland indicators. We Have a 8 acre strip which was grazed at one time and by the time we got it in the early 90's it was all cedar. It wasn't until the mid 00's that we started clearing the cedar and I was amazed with the diversity of grasses and forbs (at least 8 species within lespedeza and desmodium). With a little work we home to restore the chinquapin/post oak woodland (A few large chinquapins and post oaks are intermingled with gum bumilia pointing to what was).

It'll be interesting once we finish we can compare it to the 8 acre strip of land next to us which remains invaded by cedar...and a strip beyond that with cattle occasionally grazing. So we've got our control and two treatments so to speak.

Keep the good information coming.

Allison Vaughn said...

Awesome with the legumes. Always a good sign, as you know. I like the idea of three different treatments. I wonder if you could do some veg. monitoring to track FQI? I love good old restoration projects when clearing cedars is involved. Always so rewarding!
Thanks for reading....and keep up the great work.