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COLUMN: Forest floor can be top indicator of natural life

'Mast' production must be watched carefully as it helps determine the future health of forests and can have a major impact on wildlife, says columnist
20130721_Valk Valley_Beech nuts (Hawke)
These beech nuts are considered 'mast' and among important indicators of various things for farmers and wildlife lovers.

When the caller requested if I could speak to her group about mast production, I assumed she had me mixed up with someone else. What did I know about building sailing ships?

However, as the conversation went on, it became obvious that she was indeed on the right tack, as 'mast' is a word to describe the fruiting bodies of trees — acorns, beechnuts and such.

Mast is defined in the dictionary as "the nuts that litter a forest floor and are food for deer, grouse, and hogs." A touch outdated, but at least it helps clarify the situation.

In addition to nuts and acorns, the term 'hard mast' is extended to include the winged seeds of maple, elm, and ash; it also includes the seeds held within the cones of the pines. 'Soft mast' is the fruit of such species as black cherry, dogwood, wild grape, and blueberry.

Acorns are very rich in starch, fat and vitamins (especially white oaks) and are probably the most commonly found example of mast. The oily beechnuts are also important as a food source for wildlife.

When the European-based settlers first arrived to this area, they found one of the greatest forests that ever existed. These fur traders and explorers discovered that it extended in an almost unbroken stand from along the shores of the St. Lawrence westward to the headwaters of the Mississippi River. Stretching on and on in silent grandeur, this was the greatest and finest hardwood belt of maple, ash, cherry, and oak that has ever stood.

Many wildlife species depended heavily on the mast production of this once great forest, notably the passenger pigeon which thrived on beechnuts and acorns.

When a large flock settled to feed (and many flocks are recorded to have contained millions of birds) they would land on the forest floor in a series of ranks. The rear rank would fly ahead of the others and begin foraging. The new rear rank would then fly ahead and begin feeding, and on it would go, a huge rotation of birds moving like a rolling wave through this immense woodland.

Unfortunately, the passenger pigeon is now extinct, due in large part to habitat loss to land settlement and in part to heavy hunting pressures. With the loss of these birds the forest then began to change as well. No longer were the nuts carried to new places, and history shows that forest expansion all but halted.

The range of the Wild Turkey is also determined by the availability of mast for winter food. Other animals, such as bear, deer, raccoon, fox, and squirrels feed on mast, and wood ducks, grouse, pheasant, and many species of songbirds depend considerably upon available mast in autumn and early winter.

Historically, humans also utilized mast as food for both themselves and their livestock. The earlier mentioned hogs could be fattened prior to slaughter by ensuring they had an ample supply of butternuts and beechnuts in their diet. Unfortunately, both of these tree species are all but gone from our landscape, now making hog fattening on the local homestead a tad tricky.

Nowadays humans have other reasons to keep an eye on mast production. Certainly as seed production for the future of our forests, but wildlife watchers need to be aware of how annual mast production varies, and how that in turn affects wildlife.

A number of factors can affect overall mast production in a given year. Weather in the spring can be a big factor, as a hard frost in late spring can destroy flowers that in turn means a failed nut crop. Too much or too little rain is often critical, as is the appearance and abundance of pesky insects such as gypsy moth caterpillars.

Environmental stresses will alter the production of mast. Interestingly, if a tree feels that death is imminent, it will produce huge amounts of reproductive fruits. (That’s why we prune fruit trees… keeps them stressed and productive.)

The last few years have seen our local oaks and walnuts dropping bushels of their hard fruits in October. Not this year; there’s not an acorn or walnut to be found on our farm. Which shows that trees need a year or more rest time between large productions.

For deer, bear, squirrels, and turkeys, acorn production (or lack thereof) will influence their behaviours during the food gathering season. Successful hunters and wildlife photographers know that a poor mast year means that the critters will spend the fall hanging around the agriculture areas, while good mast production years will find the animals farther back within their preferred woodland habitats.

Mast production has a direct impact on our local white-tailed deer, as a good mast year (in the autumn) often means that the antlers that are grown the following year will be of good size and proportion.

Antler growth is indicative of the animal's health not age, so if the animals enter this winter in good health, that means that antler development next spring will better than usual. And that will produce more 'trophy' racks by fall.

So, as you sail through the local woodlots, keep a sharp eye on your mast, matey.