By Mike Zuidema
The oak tree is God’s gift to wildlife. Acorns are an important part of the food supply for nearly 200 animal species.
Bears in northern Minnesota will travel more than 20 miles in the fall to feed on acorns. On my own land in Michigan, 30-year-old red oaks that I planted as acorns are scarred with claw prints from bears that climbed them to feast on their mast. The closest native oaks to my land are 25 miles to the southwest. Far-roaming bears found this relatively small oak planting within a few years of when the trees began to produce acorns. White-tailed deer also gorge themselves on the nutritious hard mast.
In 1882, Theodore S. VanDyke, in his book, “The Still Hunter,” noted “oak ridges ... the best ground” to hunt whitetails. You can also hunt the “best ground” by introducing oaks to your hunting area. Some oaks take up to 25 years to produce regular acorn crops, but species such as English and sawtooth oaks can produce acorns in less than 10 years.
Matching the species of oak to be planted to a suitable site is very important. A forester can tell you what oak species would do well in your area. Generally, nuttall and water oaks in Southern bottomlands, white oaks in the uplands of the South, and northern red oaks in the North are the most adaptable to various soils within their range.
Five years ago, I planted sawtooth oaks that even I, a retired forester, knew little about. My son’s home is on 10 acres in South Carolina, and I live in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. We split an order of sawtooth.
The sawtooth oak is common to parts of Asia and is known for producing acorns as early as the fifth to eighth year after planting. Sawtooth oaks that are 20 to 25 years old have reportedly produced 1,000 to 1,300 pounds of acorns in one year, according to the National Wild Turkey Federation. That’s a lot of fall and winter food for all species of wildlife, considering sawtooth oak trees average 40 to 80 acorns per pound. The sawtooth oak consistently produces acorns year after year.
At the time of my sawtooth planting, the only information I had about the species was that the closest successful plantings were about 200 miles south in central Michigan. I also read that sawtooth seedlings need full sunlight for 75 percent of the day to attain best growth.
That was all I needed to get started. I dispersed the sawtooth in an area that I had been planting for years with northern red oak, white, burr, black and English oak and American chestnut. Two years after planting, I found out that a fellow Department of Natural Resources employee had planted 200 sawtooth oaks on his land the same year. We compared notes. His were planted on an upland soil, heavy to clay, and all had died. I planted on an upland site with sandy soil and had 100 percent survival. My trees looked relatively healthy. Possibly our hard, cold winters and his clay soil had something to do with his planting failure.
My son’s trees near Greenville, S.C., produced their first acorns in 2003 at the end of their fifth growing season. Even though mine are 6 feet shorter than my son’s trees, I am satisfied with their first five years of growth in a colder climate with a much shorter growing season.
So, how can you begin planting some oaks on your land? Start by identifying openings that could be planted. Wooded areas need more thought. If there are already mast-producing trees such as American beech or hickory present, or trees that afford excellent thermal cover for whitetails such as hemlock, you shouldn’t sacrifice those species for room to grow oak. On the other hand, if you have trees common to your area, such as red maples, which have reduced benefit to deer and other wildlife, you might want to cut down some half-acre patches for planting sites.
If the area to be cut consists of trees too young to be harvested commercially, consider planting with acorns three years before cutting to a species such as northern red oak that does well under a canopy of larger trees in their early years after germination. The three-year-old red oak seedlings will not have put on much height, but will have spent the time under the canopy developing a root system. When released to full sunlight, the seedlings will compete better with natural regeneration.
Use the cut unsalable trees for your firewood needs or just let the wood remain on the ground. If deer browsing on your oaks becomes a problem, use the unmerchantable trees for natural brush shelters around the seedlings.
If you have sellable timber, depending on the species of trees to be cut, you might have the logger clear-cut the entire stand, cut everything except designated trees, such as beech, hickory or hemlock. Or you could just thin your stand but clear-cut several small openings for oak plantings. Again, if you can identify clear-cut areas prior to cutting, liberally plant these areas with acorns three years before cutting.
But where do you get the acorns? Parks and cemeteries are a good place to pick them. There are probably hungry squirrels around, so when the acorns begin to fall, get there quick!
After collecting acorns, separate the bad from the good. Dump your acorns into a container of water for a couple of hours. Discard the acorns that float; these are immature specimens that have not completely filled their shells or acorns with weevil damage. The sinkers are mature and sound and can be planted.
It is best to plant in the fall immediately after acorn collection. White oaks germinate in the fall, while red oak acorns germinate in the spring. You might have a mixture of both white and red oaks, so get them into the ground as soon as possible, but keep them cool until you do. Never store them in a heated building — even for a few hours.
In 1990, I planted 86 acorns from genetically superior trees growing near Black Jack Springs, Wis. I marked every acorn with a wire flag and noted squirrel predation the next day. Within two weeks, 63 acorns had been pilfered despite my eradicating 12 red squirrels. Several of the thieves were caught in the act! To help alleviate rodent predation, acorns should be planted at a depth of 3 inches.
By this time, you might be thinking that this is a lot of work. You’re right! But it also is fun just being in the woods, away from the office or factory, doing something that is going to benefit whitetails and other wildlife. And it’s great to watch the trees grow over the years.
My two tallest oaks from my original acorn planting in 1973 measured 32 feet and 27 feet after their seventeenth growing season. The tallest oak was hand-released to full sunlight, but the other tree was not. I had lost track of this unreleased red oak for many years; then one day I rediscovered it. Without the aid of release, it was as tall as any of the red maple regeneration surrounding it, which was of sprout origin. This same tree had produced approximately two dozen acorns during its eighteenth growing season. My tallest oak had grown an average of nearly 2 feet per year!
Throughout the late 1970s, when my rifle season deer observation rate was less than one deer per day, deer browsing on my oak seedlings was not noticeable. By 1984, with an observation rate climbing beyond 2.1 deer per day, individual tree shelters became a necessity to stop excessive deer browsing. Coincidentally, Keith McCaffery, a respected Wisconsin biologist, visited me at camp the same year that my observation rate reached four deer per day. We spent the better part of a day walking the woods in my camp area and observing hemlock regeneration. Much of our discussion was about deer and how they affect the regeneration of various tree species. At the end of the day, McCaffery volunteered an educated guess of about 40 deer per square mile in the area of my camp.
I’m not a statistician, but there are some interesting parallels here. If my deer observation rates are multiplied by 10, the resulting numbers correspond as such:
* four deer per day = McCaffery’s 40 deer per-square-mile estimate.
* 2.1 deer per day = the 20 deer per-square-mile figure that most biologists feel is the uppermost deer density where deer numbers are still in balance with their habitat. Any increase in deer density will affect the quality of their food supply. That is when placing shelters over my oak seedlings became necessary.
* Less than one deer per day = probably less than 10 deer per-square-mile when I first started hunting there. The forest was so dense that little sunlight penetrated to the forest floor. Without sunlight, plant life was sparse and so was the deer herd.
Since 1984, I’ve experimented with several types of seedling shelters and have come to the conclusion that chicken wire shelters are the best. Three-foot wide chicken wire rolls cut to form a 1-foot diameter shelter work well on oak seedlings and can be pulled up on the young tree as it grows taller. Adequate stakes are needed to keep shelters upright. Treated wood stakes and various kinds of metal stakes are the best.
As your trees approach and grow to acorn-bearing age, you will periodically need to cut down adjacent trees that compete for sunlight. Oaks with crowns fully exposed to sunlight produce more acorns than those shaded, and they’re better equipped to cope with periodic insect defoliations.
The key to success is to stimulate the growth of your oak while hindering its competition. By your patience and steadfastness, God’s mighty oak will aid countless deer and other wildlife that have not previously benefited from eating nutritious white and red oak acorns.
This article was published in the August 2004 edition of Buckmasters Whitetail Magazine. Join today to have Buckmasters delivered to your home.