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Missouri Forestkeepers Document Acorn Crop

From Missouri Department of Conservation

-- Missouri's acorn-counters have filed their reports, and the news could play a key role in deer and turkey hunters' strategies this fall.

Acorn-counters? That's right. The Missouri Department of Conservation has a dedicated cadre of employees and volunteers who take to the woods each fall to measure the abundance of acorns. The durable wildlife food items are known collectively as "oak mast."

Acorns are the most important dietary staple for wildlife from chipmunks and squirrels to deer and turkeys in most of the southeastern half of Missouri. The annual survey of acorn production helps biologists predict wildlife population trends in this area.

Missouri Forestkeepers, a 2,000-strong network of citizen volunteers, helped conduct the Oak Mast Survey for the first time. Together with paid workers, they counted acorns beneath more than 6,000 oak trees.

The 2008 Oak Mast Survey provides separate data for trees in the red-and white-oak groups. The distinction is important because the two families of oak trees produce acorns on different schedules.

Acorns from white oaks, such as the common white, bur, post, overcup, swamp white and swamp chestnut oaks, grow and fall to the ground in about six months. Those from red oaks, including the northern and southern red, scarlet, pin, water, cherrybark, shumard, blackjack, shingle and water oaks, remain on the trees for more than a year, falling to the ground in their second autumn.

This difference in fruiting habits creates a sort of dietary safety net for wildlife. If a late freeze kills all the oak flowers in a particular area, as it did across most of southern Missouri in 2007, red oak acorns that began growing the previous year sustain wildlife that autumn. Red oak acorns are absent the following year, but white oaks fill the gap as long as freezing weather does not strike two years running.

This year's oak mast survey showed combined red- and white-oak acorn abundance 17 percent above last year's level, but 49 percent lower than the average since the Conservation Department began the survey in 1960.

Encouraged by abundant rainfall, white oaks produced five times more acorns than in 2007, when the Easter freeze zapped their flowers. This year's white-oak acorn crop was 23 percent above the long-term average. However, this year's red-oak acorn crop was dismal, the worst on record in fact.

The relative abundance of acorns from one or both oak groups exerts a strong influence on the behavior of squirrels, deer and turkeys. When acorns of both kinds are in short supply game animals shift their foraging activities to other food sources, such as hickory nuts and walnuts for squirrels and agricultural crops for deer and turkey. This year's shortage of red-oak acorns is likely to cause all three species to congregate around white oak groves. Smart hunters use this knowledge to help locate game.

The lowest overall abundance of acorns this year is in the Lindley Breaks Region, which consists of Howard, Boone, Callaway, Montgomery, Warren, St. Charles, Lincoln and Pike counties. The miniscule acorn abundance index of 9 in this area is offset by a relatively strong index of 121 for white oaks, making areas with those tree species potential hunting hot spots.

The Ozark Border Region, consisting of Morgan, Benton, St. Clair, Cedar, Hickory, Polk, Dallas, Webster, Christian and Newton counties had the second-worst overall acorn production, with a red-oak acorn index of 46 and a white-oak index of 136.

Next best was the Ozark East Region of Carter, Washington, St. Francois, Dent, Iron, Madison, Reynolds, Shannon, Carter, Wayne, Oregon, Ripley and Butler counties. This region's red-oak index was 30, with a white-oak index of 165.

The Union Breaks Region, consisting of Cooper, Moniteau, Cole, Osage, Gasconade, Franklin, St. Louis, Jefferson, Ste. Genevieve, Perry, Cape Girardeau and Bollinger counties, was second-best in overall acorn production with a red-oak index of 28 and a white-oak index of 174.

Topping the state was the Ozark West Region, comprising McDonald, Barry, Stone, Taney, Ozark, Howell, Douglas, Texas, Wright, Laclede, Pulaski, Phelps, Camden, Miller and Maries counties. Here the red-oak index was 68, and the white-oak index 189.

Other counties are not included in the survey, because prairie, pastures and crop fields make up a larger part of the landscape and acorns are not as dominant as a wildlife food source.

For more information about Forestkeepers, call 573-751-4115, or visit mdc.mo.gov/programs/forestkeepers/.

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