An early season bowhunt begins as a relatively casual affair. Temperatures are mild and I don’t want to alarm any nearby deer, so I slip into the woods slowly and quietly and settle in for what I expect will be a long wait.

Deer won’t move much until the sun dips below the treeline and the air temperatures similarly descend. Then, as the light grows dim and the crickets’ monotonous trill slows to measured chirps, I slowly amp up my senses of sight and sound until both are at peak.

Whack! The sudden, sharp noise nearly launches me out of my elevated perch and adrenaline surges through my veins. “What the … ?” It takes several seconds for me to compose and comprehend it was merely a fallen acorn that found just the right dead leaf to land on. I’m actually thankful because it’s the reason I chose this particular location, in hopes the deer will soon arrive to feast on the new fallen bounty. The group of hard mast we colloquially refer to as nuts is an important source of fall nutrition for a variety of both game and non-game animals, not to mention hunters.

Being in a transition zone, where deciduous hardwoods gradually yield dominance to coniferous evergreens the farther north you go, we don’t have the abundance or variety of oaks found south of us. You’ll find scrub or bear oaks scattered in the sandy plains of York and southern Cumberland counties, and white oaks may continue sparsely and sporadically north of that, but for the most part, red oaks are the dominant acorn bearers in Maine.

Unlike those of the white oaks, which are an annual crop, red oak acorns take two years to mature. That makes them more susceptible to the vagaries of annual climate variations and as a result, a somewhat unreliable food source. Some years may see a bumper crop while others may offer little or nothing in the way of nutritious hard mast.

As hunters we’d rather see something in between. We want the deer that survive hunting season to enter winter in good condition, but there is such a thing as too much of a good thing. When there’s a bumper crop of acorns deer move less, making them far less susceptible to hunters. The best scenario is small pockets of acorn concentrations that likewise prompt the deer to congregate.

A somewhat similar scenario unfolds up north, where the dominant nut producer is the beech. However, the beech crop tends to be a bit more regular, producing better crops in even-numbered years, provided there are favorable environmental conditions. As with acorns and deer, a bumper crop of beechnuts means the bears will move less, and be less inclined to seek alternative food sources like jelly doughnuts. But they also den later. The end result is that a few more bears are taken later in the fall, by deer hunters, but fewer bears are taken over bait and fewer bears are taken overall.

At least that used to be the case when our beech forests were healthier. Recent declines have resulted in changes to the forest and the animals that depend on the beechnut crop. But those changes are nothing like what was once experienced.

This century is still just a teenager but at the turn of the previous one North America was a very different place. The harvest and sale of wildlife was virtually unregulated and market gunning had pushed many species of birds and mammals – like wild turkeys and deer – to the brink of extinction. Meanwhile, seemingly endless flights of passenger pigeons blackened the skies. And from Maine to Mississippi, the American chestnut was the most abundant hardwood tree in the eastern United States, making up an estimated 25-30 percent of the eastern hardwood forest. Naturally, these trees were also one of the most important sources of hard mast for a host of wildlife species.

That importance was not just because of their abundance, but their overall superiority to oaks. Chestnuts contain more than double the protein and four times the carbohydrates of acorns. They also lack the cyclical nature of oaks and beech, bearing healthy mast crops annually, and they flower later in spring, thus avoiding late frosts that occasionally cause widespread acorn failures. They grow faster and bear fruit at an earlier age. They also grow bigger and are more prolific producers of highly nutritional food. At least they once were.

Asian or Asiatic chestnut trees imported to the New York Zoological Garden as nursery stock in 1904 also came with a chestnut blight. Within two years nearly all of New York’s trees were infected. The blight then spread across an estimated 50 miles of forest a year, ultimately spreading from Maine to Georgia and engulfing over 30 million acres of chestnut forest. By the Great Depression, the greatest ecological disaster in history had all but wiped out American chestnuts.

There is some hope we may one day see a return of these majestic giants. Since the 1980s, the American Chestnut Cooperators’ Foundation has been crossbreeding pure American chestnuts in an effort build up blight resistance, while also looking at forest ecology to see if any some specific forest habitat types foster chestnut growth.

Meanwhile, the American Chestnut Foundation has been back-crossing naturally resistant Asian chestnuts with American chestnuts in hopes of developing a blight-resistant hybrid that will also preserve as much of the genetic heritage of the American species as possible. And many private nurseries and conservation organizations like the National Wild Turkey Federation are working to develop and distribute hybrids that in some cases are superior nut producers to the native species.

In the meantime, we’re left with acorns and beechnuts, which deer turkeys and other species seem to have gotten by on for the last century or so.

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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