Thwack! The loud crack startled me so much I almost jumped out of my tree stand. I had just settled in and assumed still-and-silent mode when the acorn, which must have fallen from some considerable height, struck the forest floor with the sound of a tiny bullwhip.

The subsequent realization of what it was shut off my fright or flight reflex, ceasing the surge of adrenaline. Eventually I became accustomed to the random pops of falling acorns and welcomed them, hoping they might act as a dinner bell to any nearby but as yet unseen deer. Acorns, when and where they occur, can be a benefit to both hunter and hunted, not to mention numerous unhunted forest creatures, and this year’s bumper crop should be a real bounty.

Oaks come in two general varieties, white and red (sometimes alternately referred to as black oaks). Both prefer relatively dry soils, which is why they tend to be locally abundant but not particularly widespread in Maine, where the dominant soils are marine clay or poorly drained glacial till. White oak varieties (white oak, burr oak, scrub oak) are further restricted largely to southwestern Maine, while northern read oaks occur nearly statewide but are still patchily distributed.

The biggest difference between the two varieties is their life cycle. It takes white oaks one year to produce acorns. Under favorable conditions they will produce a crop every year. White oak acorns tend to fall earlier and over a shorter duration. There’s also some evidence to suggest deer prefer them because they have less tannins and thus are less bitter.

Hunters should find the white oaks and hunt there early in good nut years. It takes red oaks two years to produce an acorn, and the drop is typically later and more protracted. When they have a good crop, you can hunt among them right through the firearms season.

There are no white oaks near me, so I don’t know what that crop is like this fall. But I suspect that given the drought it’s not too good. Red oaks, on the other hand, benefited from last year’s favorable growing conditions, and despite this year’s drought, produced a bumper crop. If the lack of water had any effect, it might be the nuts are a tad smaller this year and did start falling earlier, perhaps due to stressed trees. Regardless, there are a lot of acorns on the ground right now.

Deer seek them out as a source of carbohydrates to help lay on winter fat. In fact, studies have shown that where acorns occur, deer prefer them over all other natural food sources. And those deer that survive hunting season should go into this winter in excellent condition. That bodes well for next year’s herd, and hunting season as well.

There is a down side, at least from the hunter’s perspective. Too many nuts mean the deer don’t have to travel as far to find food. As a result, they’re less susceptible to hunting mortality. You may work harder this fall for your deer, but it should be fat and healthy.

Wild turkeys also gobble up fallen acorns with zeal. In fact, some folks think turkeys out-compete deer for the precious bounty and are in part responsible for recent statewide declines in the deer herd. That’s a myth. I repeat: That is a myth. Turkeys only feed during the day, while deer can potentially feed 24/7. Furthermore, acorns are a bonus, not a staple; deer do just as well in years when there are no acorns.

On the contrary, gray squirrels are far more dependent on the acorn crop. Though they’re nearly ubiquitous throughout the eastern hardwood forests from southern New England to the gulf states, their distribution in Maine coincides roughly with red oaks. And their relative abundance from one year to the next is also directly tied to the acorn crop. That’s partly why, though they’re among the most popular game species in the U.S., particularly among young hunters, they just don’t generate much interest in Maine.

Countless other species, including bears, foxes, coyotes and grouse, benefit from the bounty of a good acorn crop. Even wood ducks will feast on those that plop into rivers, streams and shoreline waters of lakes and ponds. Squirrels, chipmunks and mice will eat what they can and stow many more in the forest floor for a later date. Some they’ll recover and others will lie dormant over the winter, then sprout with sunlight and rains of spring, one day growing to produce a crop of their own.

Bob Humphrey is a freelance writer and registered Maine guide who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at:

[email protected]


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