"Bayou Bill" Scifres
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Mast Crop Less Than Spectacular
Copyright © 2004 by Bill Scifres

We are little more than two weeks into a squirrel season that will continue through the remainder of the year, but early hunts and observations indicate that the year’s mast crop (the seeds of trees and other woody growth) is something less than spectacular.

How good or bad the produce of Mother Nature will eventually be is difficult to evaluate at this early date, but it will be somewhere down the line from last year’s bumper crop.

“Spotty” is a word that often is used to evaluate the mast crop of lean years, and that could be an apt appraisal for the way the seeds of trees and woody growth are shaping up this year.

True, I am not seeing the hickory and black walnuts that were present this time last year, but I still run into trees of both species that are bearing very well, some offering even excellent crops. Likewise, not all white oak species are producing the great crops of acorns they proffered last year, but I am finding some trees producing fair crops. I see the beech as much the same, but bitternut hickory (a k a spignut or pignut) traditionally is out performing other hickory species. This is good news for squirrels and squirrel hunters.

An indicator of a less than usual white oak crop will be noted in the fact that we now are seeing squirrels cutting (feeding on) the black oak species. This is almost unheard of in the early days of any squirrel season, but it is happening now and it does not bode well for white oak mast, a preferred food of deer as well as squirrels.

I am far from an expert on nutritional values of acorns from white and black oak species, but the old-timers I knew as a boy used to say squirrels could starve with their bellies full of red oak acorns. On the other hand, my dad and many of my other senior squirrel-hunting mentors were high on the acorns of pin oak. I am seeing more red oak mast this year than pin oak, but the latter tends to develop more slowly than any of the other oak species--white or black.

Although I have noticed spicewood’s (a k a spicebrush) beautiful fire-engine red berries in the southern hardwood hills, and dogwood berries elsewhere, seeds of maple, ash, gum (both black and sweet) appear only in places.

So what’s this year’s apparent shortage of mast all about? Were the flowers nipped by frost last spring? 

Not necessarily, says Phil O’Connor, forester in charge of the Division of Forestry’s annual seed- gathering program. Most of the hardwoods of Indiana, and many of the other tree species are biennial producers, O’Connor says.

He says a great part of the mast crop failure this year can be blamed on last year’s bumper crop. Production of last year’s mast crop simply used so much of the trees’ energy that they were unable to repeat the performance, O’Connor says. Some of the oaks even are on a four or five-year cycle, he adds.

O’Connor says there is a good crop of white oak acorns in the northeast, but elsewhere in the state oak production appears to be down.

Incidentally, the Division of Forestry nursery at Vallonia (good ol’ Jackson County) buys seeds from 50 species of trees (including 12 oak species and black walnut). Those who have trees bearing good crops this year can learn more of this program by calling O’Connor (812-358-3621), or by writing him: P.O. Box 218, Vallonia, IN 47281.

CORRECTION--Last week’s column erroneously reported that the limit on doves is 25 per day. The daily bag limit on doves will be 15 and the possession limit 30 when the first segment of that season opens Wednesday (Sept 1).

All columns, essays, and photos are copyrighted by Bill Scifres and may not be reproduced in any form without prior permission from the author.  For reproduction permission and media usage fees, contact: Bill Scifres, 6420 East 116th Street, Fishers, IN 46038, E-mail: billscifres@aol.com

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