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Acorn shortage may make wildlife roam next winter

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Monday, April 12, 2010

Next winter could be difficult for many wild animals because the availability of acorns seems to have dropped as much as 90 percent in some parts of Pennsylvania, those who keep any eye on the state's forests say.

The shortage could push deer, turkeys, bears, squirrels and chipmunks into areas where they are not wanted, including bird feeders, trash cans, areas with ornamental trees and even onto the state's roads.

"There are very few acorns in the Allegheny Plateau, much fewer this year in the central and northern parts of the state. The availability of acorns seems to be down by at least half and may be down 90 percent in some places," said Jim Finley, a professor at the school of forest resources at Penn State University in State College.

"This will be a problem in November, December, January. Animals that feed on acorns — which is pretty much all animals — will be looking for other things to eat in other places," Finley said.

While the number of acorns produced by oak trees varies from year to year, experts cited several reasons for the shortage expected later this year.

Snow fell in much of the state on Oct. 15, when most trees still had leaves on them.

"There are branches all over the place that we can see close up, ... and there are very few acorns on the branches that fell," Finley said.

A bigger problem was an unusually late frost on June 1 in much of the state. In Pittsburgh, the average date of a last frost is April 27, according to the National Weather Service.

"That just like having a frost in an apple orchard. It's very damaging," Finley said.

Acorns face another problem — the acorn weevil, a type of beetle that destroys acorns by breeding inside them.

"If you do not have good acorns, you do not have the potential for regeneration. It's another thing that could cause animals to wander farther," said Corey Wentzell of the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources' Bureau of Forestry, who is stationed in Westmoreland County.

However, Wentzell said animals have a tremendous ability to adapt. From 1900 to 1940, a blight destroyed 3.5 billion American chestnut trees, wiping out a common food source for squirrels, deer, mice and wild turkeys. The animals adapted and survived, he said.

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