The weather this past Halloween was a bit spooky — too warm, a little muggy, and windy as heck.
In the afternoon, before the festivities got underway, I took our dog Scout for a pre-trick-or-treating walk to let him work out some energy before things really got exciting. As we were heading back toward our house, the wind blew a gigantic oak leaf onto the street.
This was by far the biggest leaf I’d ever seen in my life. I picked it up quickly before the dog got a chance to tackle it, as he is wont to do to leaves, sticks, the errant piece of garbage, any toad hopping by or just about anything else interesting he might find on the road.
I showed it to my husband as soon as I got inside and he agreed it was a massive leaf. Of course I had to break out a ruler and see if I had a world-record-sized oak leaf in my hands. It was 14 inches from stem to tip, not too shabby I thought. Then I took out my phone to confirm I’d found a Guinness World Record.
Not even close, unfortunately.
People all over North America have found oak leaves that bested mine by half a foot. And it turns out oak leaf length isn’t the only factor when vying for a world record; the width is just as important. Record-holding leaves are measured by surface area, and mine didn’t even compare.
But holding that big leaf in my hand got me thinking about the significance of oak trees. We welcome the blooms on flowering trees heralding the spring, relax in the cool shade of leafy trees in the summer, curse the trees dropping leaves in autumn and appreciate the firewood that comes from trees to keep up warm in the winter, not to mention decorate a tree of the evergreen variety as the centerpiece of the holiday season. But in the hustle and bustle of modern life, it’s not often that we get the chance to sit back and ponder the majesty of the trees that surround us.
The oak tree is perhaps the most important of all the trees that grow in Maryland. There are more than a dozen types of oaks that grow in Maryland: black, blackjack, chestnut, Northern red, overcup, pin, post, sawtooth, scarlet, Southern red, swamp chestnut, white and willow. Maybe you’ve got one of them growing in your backyard.
If you’ve got an oak tree, then you’ve got a veritable smorgasbord of food for wildlife, especially this time of year. The tiny acorn is truly the superfood of the wild. The five species of squirrels that are found in Maryland (red, gray, southern flying, eastern fox and Delmarva fox) rely heavily on acorns to help them survive cold winters when not much else is available for food. If you spend even a few minutes of time outside this fall, I can guarantee you’ll see some squirrels scampering around under oak trees looking for acorns to stash away for the cold months ahead.
Everyone knows squirrels depend on acorns, but did you know plenty of other critters do, too?
Deer come to mind right away. Hunters know this and can hone in on prime hunting locations by finding oak trees where deer feed. Deer and other wildlife often prefer white oak acorns because they contain fewer tannins and taste best, but when acorns are scarce, they will feed on just about any kind of acorn to survive.
Interestingly, white oak acorns sprout quickly after dropping from trees, so animals have to act fast to eat them when they are still packed with nutritional value. Red oak acorns, on the other hand, can be stored all winter and eaten later in the season when other food is unavailable. When faced with an unpalatable red oak acorn or starvation, the red oak acorn starts to look pretty appetizing to a hungry squirrel.
Other popular game such as wild turkeys consume acorns, too. In fact, there’s a tree that produces acorns ideal for feeding and attracting wild turkeys known as the gobbler sawtooth oak. This variety of sawtooth was developed from a tree in Maryland in the 1960s and is known for being a heavy producer of smaller sized acorns, perfectly-sized for gobblers to gobble up.
There’s another much bigger animal that heads toward stands of oak trees in October to get its fill of acorns. In fact, acorns are the single most important food source for black bears in Maryland, which inhabit the westernmost portion of our state.
During spring and summer, black bears consume about 5,000 calories per day. In the fall, when they are putting on weight for the rigors of hibernation, black bears can eat as much as 20,000 calories per day. That’s a lot of acorns.
Did you know that some fish eat acorns? Savvy anglers who like to go fishing for squirrels will drill a hole through an acorn and push a hook through for a chance to catch a grass carp in the fall.
These fish aren’t found in Maryland usually and are listed as an invasive species, but some states stock them in order to control aquatic weeds. These carp like to congregate under oak branches and eat acorns that plop into the water.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that in addition to mammals, birds and fish, invertebrates also rely on oak trees for sustenance. Oak trees host a whopping 534 species of moth and butterfly caterpillars in the spring and summer months, more than any other kind of tree in North America.
So when you’re outside this November, don’t forget to look down. You just might find the next world record oak leaf (you’ll need to find one that measures bigger than 11 by 16.14 inches). And make sure you look up, too, just to ponder for a few moments the grandeur of the oak trees around you. Some of them could be 300 years or older, and all of them are an invaluable resource to the wildlife that depend on them for shelter and food.