It's that time of year the time of tall oaks and fat squirrels. The mast (acorns, butternuts, hickory nuts, etc.) is extremely bountiful this fall. Probably the best crop of acorns in years. The squirrel population is at a 21-year high. Great news for hunters.
I was out Tuesday morning with Vern Ross, hunting down along the river bottom and shot two squirrels out of the same tree just as it began to rain. Right after the rain stopped, we got two more. Monday afternoon, Les Fegely stopped by my house to show me three fox squirrels he'd just shot just north of Webster City in a small wooded area. Sunday afternoon, I met up with Grant Nelson, who had just walked up out of the woods with three squirrels. It's going to be a great fall season for squirrel hunting quite possibly one of the best in years.
Squirrels, as you no doubt know, like to feast on acorns and acorns mind you, come from oak trees. But not all oak trees are created equal. Acorns from trees belonging to the white-oak clan (white, post, chestnut, live and cow oaks, the latter known as "swamp chestnuts" are considerably sweeter and of more appeal to wildlife than those produced by the red oak family red, black, scarlet, pin, burr and others. Secondly, the white oak acorns take only a year to mature; red-oak acorns require two years. Check the branches of any of the red oak tribe in summer and you'll discover first year and larger second year acorns growing on the same branchlets. And a little known fact that most of the 40 or so oak types must be at 20 years old before they yield acorns.
Hickories differ, too
As with oaks, not all of the dozen or so types of hickories taste good. The exception being the shagbark hickory. Some are sweet, some are kind of bland and some are bitter. They feed a lot of our wildlife such as opossums, blue jays, wood ducks, crows, porcupines, deer and squirrels. Are you ready for this? A mature oak tree will produce no less than 2,000 to 8,000 acorns. But you'll have to rummage through layers of crackling brown leaves to find a single intact nut. And it's no secret where all of them have gone. Rich in carbohydrates and protein, and easily digested because they're softer than other nuts they are food for a wide variety of wild animals.
The number of acorns consumed at a single meal can be astonishing. The crop of one wild turkey examined by Missouri Department of Natural Resources scientists contained 221 large acorns. To lay on the fat, a gray squirrel may eat a quarter pound of acorns a day; and in less than four minutes a gray squirrel may has been clocked burying five acorns. And yes, squirrels actually do go back during the winter and dig up all those acorns they bury. Believe it or not almost every acorn they've got cached gets dug up and eaten before winter is over. Ever watch a squirrel bury a nut? It's always inserted into the ground point-first. Always.
How does a squirrel unerringly find a nut buried months earlier? In Connecticut, a gray squirrel was watched as it dug through the snow to recover eight caches in 10 minutes. Biologists say memory plays little or no role in cache-finding. Rather, the damp soil of a deciduous forest (and the snow cover) contains the scent of the nut. It is estimated that less than one percent of the acorns from an oak tree survive from foraging animals.
It's pretty hard to beat the flavor of a big, grain-fed mallard duck; of a corn-fed deer and even better that of an acorn-fed fox squirrel. I like them skillet-fried and coated with a cornmeal batter.
As I put this column together, it's late Tuesday afternoon. The wind is coming up and the leaves are blowing down off the trees like sheets of rain. Fewer leaves on the trees mean greater visibility in the woods, meaning Old Mister Fox Squirrel will be easier to see this weekend.
Pheasant picture improves
The pheasant picture is getting better every day. More and more farmers are telling me they are seeing quite a few birds getting up ahead of their combines. I haven't seen the results of the August roadside pheasant counts yet, but local observations are better than last year. Now if we can leave enough cover to tide them over the winter months, we should be in good shape come spring.
As for me, as you are reading this, the sun is just coming up over the eastern sky. And I am already deep in the squirrel woods, having crept in under the cover of darkness. It's squirrel huntin' time. I haven't decided yet whether I'm going to have squirrel stew in a crock-pot with cat-head biscuits or squirrel smothered in cornmeal batter and fried in a black cast-iron skillet. Either way, I'll have corn bread with it and hot coffee to wash it all down.
And now, have a good weekend.