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Posted at 10:02 AM ET, 10/20/2011

The coming squirrel famine

My colleague Annys Shin has some intriguing news this morning about local squirrels, acorns and Hurricane Irene. Really. She sent me the following report:

To release, or not to release?

That’s the question for some local squirrel rehabilitators, who after being deluged with baby squirrels tossed out of trees by Hurricane Irene face the unpleasant dilemma of whether to turn them loose to face possible starvation due to an acorn shortage.

In some parts of the area, squirrel lovers say they have noticed fewer
Will squirrels encounter an acorn shortage? (Nikki Kahn/The Post) | MORE SQUIRREL PHOTOS
acorns this year, though not quite on the scale of the Great Acorn Drought of ’08. One rehabilitator in the District, Miriam Stein, suggested on her neighborhood listserv that people consider ordering acorns online and freezing them to supplement the soon-to-be hungry squirrels.

“Likely due to late frosts this spring, most oak trees neglected to produce acorns this fall. That means that the food Cleveland Park’s squirrels rely on never came,” she wrote. “Within a month or so, as the weather worsens and the squirrels polish off their winter caches, our neighborhood will be full of starving squirrels.”

Other local wildlife rehabilitators and forestry experts, however, think Stein may be crying, um, squirrel. They are skeptical of the Coming Squirrel Famine. Frank Howard of the Second Chance Wildlife Rehabilitation Center in Gaithersburg said he and other rehabilitators haven’t noticed a shortage of acorns this year.

“The general consensus seems to be that the acorns on the ground seem to be about average, and there seems to be a bumper crop of black walnuts, potentially making up for any perceived shortage of acorns,” he said.

Different types of oak trees produce acorns on different cycles. White oaks, for instance, produce acorns every few years. Last year, there was a bumper crop of acorns. Laura Simon, the urban wildlife director for the Humane Society of the United States, says she’s noticed fewer acorns this year.

“We are going to see this will have a heavy impact on wild life,” Simon said. “It’s going to be a bad year for squirrels.”

Still, she doesn’t recommend storing nuts for the winter on their behalf. “Your heart goes out to these animals. At the same time it’s really not a good idea to supplementarily feed them,” she said. “We don’t even know what freezing does to acorns. It’s just better to let them adapt to the natural conditions, then to reverse them by provisioning them.”

And whatever you do, don’t hand feed them or else they become dependent on you and might become a little aggressive.

The confusion over whether there is or is not an acorn shortage is likely to be settled soon. Local forestry officials and volunteers are gathering acorns as part of a seed collection project. That will give them a sense of production levels.

In the meantime, some squirrel rehabilitators will have to decide whether to keep their furry charges. “It’s tough,” Simon said. “We don’t know the outcome. We just have to make the best educated guess.”

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