Acorns are the staff of life for wildlife

For the past few weeks, neighborhoods all over metro Atlanta have been under bombardment -- a relentless pounding from countless acorns falling on car tops, roofs and decks.

At my home on the outskirts of Decatur, the acorns sound like battlefield attacks as they strike my roof all through the day and night. During a walk in my neighborhood this week, I was bopped several times by acorns falling from tall oaks in neighbors’ yards -- a painful experience when the nuts fall from on high.

I know, though, that the acorn barrage soon will be over. The oaks will finally run out of acorns and there will be no more left -- until next fall -- to drop to the ground.

Then, I can go back to appreciating acorns as a valuable food source for more than 100 species of Georgia’s wild creatures -- including white-tailed deer, black bear, wild turkeys, squirrels, mice, rabbits, foxes, raccoons, turkeys, quail, blue jays, woodpeckers, tufted titmice, waterfowl and on and on.

Understandably, the health and abundance of wildlife -- especially bear, deer and turkeys -- often rise and fall with acorn availability in autumn and winter. When available, acorns are the most preferred white-tailed deer food in autumn and winter, composing half or more of the animals’ diet. When acorns are plentiful, deer may eat little else other than acorns until the nuts are depleted.

For some animals -- particularly squirrels, woodland mice and blue jays -- an ample cache of acorns may be critical to winter survival. If acorns are scarce, the creatures may die or be forced to migrate to new areas where other food sources are available.

In large part, acorns -- especially those from red oaks, white oaks and chestnut oaks -- have filled a gaping niche created by the near elimination of American chestnuts a century ago in North Georgia's forests because of the chestnut blight. Chestnuts once provided abundant food for a variety of wildlife. Before the blight, black bears feasted royally on the so-called "king of nuts." Chestnut trees were reliable, annual producers, with large trees producing thousands of nuts every year. Oaks, on the other hand, may produce bumper crops only every three to five years.

Wildlife biologists say that this year’s statewide acorn production is mostly spotty -- very good in some areas (like my DeKalb neighborhood) but not so good in others.

In general, though, Georgia’s fall acorn crop is so important to wildlife survival that any hint of a disease or blight affecting oak trees sends shivers down wildlife biologists’ backs. That’s a main reason state foresters and others maintain a constant vigilance against any threat to the state’s oak populations.

IN THE SKY: The moon will be first quarter on Wednesday, rising out of the east around lunchtime and setting in the west around midnight, said David Dundee, astronomer at Tellus Science Museum. Mercury and Venus are low in the west just after dark. Mars is high in the east a few hours before sunrise. Jupiter is in the east as the sky darkens. Saturn is low in the east a few hours before sunrise.