Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Nut birds

The season of nuts is upon us, and squirrels are once again being admired for being so industrious. Don't they gather up and bury all those acorns and other nuts? Aren't they responsible for planting forests full of oaks, hickories and beeches?

Not necessarily. Biologist M.R. Chettleburgh has found that during the single month of October, 30 to 40 jays can gather and plant more than 20,000 acorns alone. The jays are caching them for future use, but often forget their whereabouts, allowing the nuts to sprout.

On average, jays carry these acorns a quarter mile from the tree that bore them, but often they fly them a half to three-quarters of a mile away. No lazy, old squirrel is going to haul an acorn a half-mile.

Clearly, jays are the real planters and spreaders of our woodlands. In Siberia, in fact, they are protected by the state because of their forest-expanding abilities.

And maybe that's why Blue Jays are so noisy at this time of year, screeching and squawking seemingly from dawn to dusk: They're whining about all the credit the squirrels get for being hard-working.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Beeches and bears

For most of us, “beech nut” means a baby food. However, if you’re old enough, you probably remember Beech-Nut Chewing Gum. And if you’re really old enough, Beech-Nut Coffee, Beech-Nut Macaroni, and – with a name in which the words seem to clash, Beech-Nut Peanut Butter.

For a bear, however, a real beech nut is like candy.

At this time of year, Black Bears will climb 60 or more feet to the top of an American Beech to search for its offering of food. The bear will break off nut-laden branches from the tree’s crown and stuff in them in the crotches of limbs while it picks off and eats the nuts. Old New Englanders called the resulting tangles of nutless, broken branches “bear nests.”

Why go through all this trouble when berries and other foods abound down below? The beech nut is said to be the calorically richest nut in North America, containing at least 50% fat and 20% protein. For a bear about to hunker down for a long winter’s nap, that’s an ideal food – well worth the climb and the work that includes breaking off branches up to two and a half inches in diameter.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

The season for sneezin'

As millions of tons of sneeze-provoking pollen is spewed the air this season, innocent bystanders invariably get the blame.

Goldenrod is often cited as the cause of hay fever simply because it's so brilliant at a time when its humble but potent cousin, ragweed, is also blooming. As a result, misguided allergy sufferers destroy countless goldenrods, one of the great seasonal sources of color and scent as well as nectar for bees.

Airborne pollen causes hay fever. Most flowers with airborne pollen – ragweed, plantain, grasses, many trees – are green and unnoticed, hidden among their own leaves. They're green because they don't need to be “different” to catch the eye of passing bees and other flying pollinators – they use air, not insects, to effect pollination. Goldenrod has bee-borne pollen, too heavy to float in the air and up the nose. Its yellow helps attract bees to haul its pollen around.

Thus, despite all the colorful TV and magazine ads for allergy medications, few if any brightly colored flowers will ever tickle your nose or tighten your chest. Wheezers and sneezers should join everyone else and enjoy Mother Nature's late summer explosion of yellow.

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