Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Mast production

I spent a small part of my Tuesday morning listening to stories of squirrel eradication. Surrounded by folks interested in preserving, protecting, and restoring the natural world, I was a bit surprised by the number of folks at the table who admitted to shooting, trapping, and drowning squirrels to protect their backyard plants and birdseed. While I recognize that there are few natural predators left in the natural world, if squirrels dig up my bulbs or snip off my kale seedlings or decimate my gourds, isn't that part of life of living in a natural setting? Apparently not, according to the folks who think it's perfectly acceptable to shoot the squirrels who threaten their bird feeders. Harsh punishment? Sure, death is definitely a punishment for hitting up $20 worth of sunflower seeds intended for Northern cardinals. Not in my yard. My native woodland setting is full of squirrels in the canopy, in the shrub layer, at the base of my birdfeeders. I set out watering stations for squirrels. I get upset when a careless fast driver on my street recklessly kills a squirrel. I end up throwing the carcasses in the abandoned lot next door so they don't turn into disgusting messes for my dogs to sniff.

While I do not conduct scientific surveys on Missouri's mast production, I can attest to a bumper crop of acorns in my immediate vicinity. Massive bur oak acorns, thousands of black oak, Northern red oak, and chinquapin oak acorns cover my yard. And the squirrels and blue jays are going crazy with them. I was told at the table yesterday that "I don't shoot fox squirrels, they can stay, but all the rest must go." One person shoots squirrels and throws the lifeless carcasses into his yard to "feed local foxes." I have learned that squirrels who mature to three years or greater will begin to forage on non-acorn food, which means that the squirrels eating my green tomatoes and snipping off my kale leaves are older individuals. I live in a city, a very urban area, but a city full of big trees and unkempt yards. I do appreciate knowing that the plush Gund toy-look-alike squirrels in my yard may be old natives, and, hopefully reproducing. I have both fox squirrels and gray squirrels inhabiting my yard. They have as much of a right to the yard's food production as the black-capped chickadees, blue jays, cedar waxwings, cottontail rabbits, and yes, even the hawks that prey on the crummy Eurasian sparrows who hang out in my brushpile.

The spring months were incredibly wet, wetter than normal for April and May. Vegetation is rank in my yard these days, and seed production is high. The white-throated sparrows are gorging on the seeds of Silphium perfoliatum. Black-capped chickadees and Northern cardinals are enjoying the seeds on the goldenrods, asters, and cedar berries, which are plentiful this year. Reports from the area claim huge numbers of acorns for wild turkeys and white-tailed deer. If we can only have a drier spring--not too dry!--the Northern bobwhite quail population may be able to rebound. The climactic changes that may seem imperceptible to folks not trying to implement prescribed fire, or trying to plan a farm planting, or trying to track phenology of wild plants are very real. The ideal burn days that once happened all November just don't occur anymore; humidities are too low, winds too high, fuel moistures too low. Weather events are more erratic, increased moisture has directly impacted wildlife, namely ground nesting birds and others are surely documenting the whole natural web of life.

So I have my yard. I don't shoot squirrels. I feed birds, I burn my yard, I have brushpiles that infuriate my local neighborhood association, and I don't have control over external forces and it's frustrating. A cold front with no rain is moving through tonight. High winds, predictions of 40 mph which may impact my old growth trees but hopefully not. I can't go outside and look at the windsock and feel the crunch in the leaves and call it a good burn day anymore. And I will never kill squirrels.


Patricia A. Laster said...

I subscribed to your blog while I was working on the sequel Her Face in the Glass, set in the Missouri Ozark Highlands. Though I'm finished, I will still read your posts. I write a weekly column for the Amity AR STANDARD and would so love to quote some of your work--especially this one. I, too, live where there is still one red oak standing after 2 had to come down last year. The acorns are everywhere! I have squirrels, too, and birds which co-exist well, especially robins, bluejays, bluebirds, mockingbirds, brown thrashers, black-caps. Do you encourage emptying the birdbath for winter? Some folks do that, but I never have, for birds come to it year round. I even break up the ice. I have just discovered a bush of groundsel between the roadside and my yard. Its roots are close to the concrete-block "fence" my dad built years ago. An AR Agri man suggests cutting it down as it is invasive. I've done that until lately, wanting to find out what it was. I think I'll leave it. It's by a redbud and dogwood that are inside the yard. Any thoughts or recommendations? I have a cousin, Mark Pelton, in Poplar Bluff who was with the Forestry service many years. He's had photos on the calendar. Thanks again for your posts.

Allison Vaughn said...

Congratulations on your book! I'll look for it! And thanks for reading. You live in a beautiful part of Arkansas, of course. I don't think I know what groundsel is? I know if it's bush honeysuckle you'll want to get rid of it quickly--cut and stump treat with glyphosate. I also recommend continuing to keep your birdbath in good order during the winter. In the mornings of hard freezes, which unfortunately continues for several months here in Missouri, I empty the ice and refill the birdbath with warm water and continue to check it for ice formation during the day. I call it giving the birds some coffee.