Our screen house took a direct hit. Bang! In a long bounce, the acorn slammed the deck below. Clang! It ricocheted to a metal table. Seconds later, a repeat performance.
This percussion suite continued for an hour until the musicians—squirrels nibbling in the oaks above—finished their early evening harvest. Acorns littered the deck, tables, and chairs.
Along with the mess came a mystery.
Why had the squirrels chosen to nosh in a red oak? Squirrels devour the sweet acorns from white oaks when they’re first available in late summer. They prefer to bury the red-oak acorns, which are quite tannic. I always thought squirrels buried the red acorns so winter could mellow their astringent taste. Yet many of the deck’s late August acorn bombs had been bitten. Half-eaten, even.
Most of the oaks gracing our property are the northern red variety. I counted six red oaks as I stood in my driveway the other day, and there are many more sprinkled through the woods surrounding our home. So far, I’ve located only two white oaks on the property. Perhaps, I thought, there aren’t enough white oaks to feed the squirrel masses. But why take only a bite or two, then toss the rest of the acorn?
It turns out that squirrels are not as wasteful as that behavior might suggest. But before you read the explanation, take a moment to watch—well, mostly listen to—the Sciuridae Percussion Ensemble. I didn’t amp up the volume, so this is what the acorns sounded like, recorded some fifteen feet from the drop zone.
So, what explains the half-eaten nuts? The answer, I learned here, is in the acorn. The embryo—the part that will germinate—is in the bottom half. That’s also where the tannins are concentrated. When a squirrel bites only the top of an acorn, the embryo remains intact. Come spring, the acorn can still produce a seedling. How neat is that?
Squirrels bury lots of acorns whole, of course. It turns out that winter storage doesn’t mellow their terrible taste. But the tannins work like natural preservatives to keep the nut nutritious. I’d admire the squirrels’ savvy, except they love to bury acorns in inappropriate places.
Next spring, I’ll be cursing hundreds of oak seedlings in my gardens. How about you?