Bull market acorn rally underway on Granite State's "Oak Street!"
October’s been quiet so far on Wall Street. The historically volatile month for stocks often creates Halloween jitters. Earnest evening news anchors report that financial markets even staged a small rally this month. News footage typically depicts squirrely stock or commodities traders scurrying beneath arching limbs of suspended video screens on a busy lower Manhatten trading floor awash in discarded sell orders. The ceremonial gavel at the closing bell signals the end of each trading day.
Meanwhile on New Hampshire’s “Oak Street” district, the frantic trading by wildlife scurrying amid fallen leaves is proceeding round the clock. The coin of our forested realm is the almighty acorn rather than the dollar. This October is yielding a bumper crop, a bull market acorn rally is underway in the local commodities market!
Each morning, I hear a staccato “tuk, tuk, tuk” call of legions of striped chipmunks busily hustling white oak and red oak acorns into hollows beneath stonewalls. At noon, a phalanx of marching turkeys tills-up oak leaves, filling gizzards with acorn meat. Rowdy gangs of raucous blue jays are stashing individual acorns into bark crevices and branch crotches. I find visible acorns perched in odd places well above an imaginary snowpack by blue-uniformed jays.
Industrious gray squirrels crack open acorns, lick and rub them on their faces and cache them. The squirrel traders can be heard rustling in leaves on the forest floor and ascending with cheeks bulging to the canopy where they move laterally to cache acorns near their often communal winter dens in hollow tree cavities or leafy summer day nests built high in the canopy.
Deer mice, white-footed mice and flying squirrels work the night shift. Northern flying squirrels and raccoons nip acorn-leaden oak twigs from the canopy and drop them to the ground where acorns are more easily gathered. Mice cache acorns in underground tunnels and chambers where they’ll spend winter confined beneath the snow.
Raccoons and deer are fattening on acorns now, rather than caching them for future consumption. Deer are feasting on acorns each night. I find heaps of hulls and half eaten nut meats amid the thick pile carpet of pawed-up oak leaves. In winter, deer browse on hardwood twigs, spending days stationary in thick hemlock cover.
Wildlife managers term variable seed crops as “mast” from "masticate." Hard mast includes all seeds and nuts: acorns, beech nuts, maple and ash seeds. Soft mast are fruits: wild strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, grapes and apples.
These fat times for deer and black bears mean that game have not needed to descend from oak-clad ridges to valley farms and orchards in search of corn and apples. The bumper crop of acorns means that hunters will work a little harder, hiking away from roads and deeper into forests to reach their quarry this autumn.
The oaks are literally raining acorns this year. They’re like marbles underfoot, particularly in the southwestern towns of the Monadnock Region hit hardest by last December’s ice storm. Wild nut production varies annually by region and even within a given region. One legacy of this largess should be a regional carpet of tiny oak seedlings by the end of next summer. Oaks follow an intentional "boom and bust" evolutionary strategy of “masting” that insures at least some portion of the acorn crop will survive to germinate and grow to maturity.
By varying annual mast production, trees effectively control birth rates, adult survival and migration of seed consumers from small mice and voles to larger deer and black bears. After several successive lean years, a bumper crop effectively "floods the market" overwhelming the ability of remaining seed-eaters to consume all that mast.
Annual variations in seed crops are as significant in determining the regional abundance of wildlife as winter severity, hunting pressure and rates of roadkill and diseases. Trees have evolved to successfully manage populations of seed predators. In so doing, trees also eventually influence the relative abundance of large predators and tiny parasites including ticks and tiny mange mites.
Contrary to popular wisdom which says “it’s the little things that rule the Earth,” in eastern oak forests, the largest, acorn-producing oaks control the fates of all other creatures sharing the forest.