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Acorn shortage has squirrels in spin

December 01, 2008

By now we're all used to the headlines with their doomsday warnings of shortfalls and losses, and declining this and that -- but I have to admit, I didn't see this one coming: There's an acorn shortage.

Throughout the region, scientists are mystified by the phenomenon; oak trees that normally produce bushels on bushels of acorns are nutless this year.

The fact that there is an acorn shortage worries me less than the fact that an acorn shortage is news. Are things really that bad? Is there a fear that the economy is so shot that we are all on the brink of returning to our hunter-gatherer roots, and an acorn shortage could mean that we will all starve?

I know a little about supply and demand, so if you have acorn futures in the 401(k) -- and the "k" stands for kaput -- this is excellent news. But short of that, who cares?

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It could be this is important because we're only two bank failures from being forced into a mast-based economy.

"Hey, you got change for a walnut?"

"Yeah, two almonds and a chinquapin."

But the importance of the matter, in our "How does this affect me?" society, seems to be the effect the acorn shortage is having on squirrels.

Without their normal foodstuff, squirrels are on the rampage, according to a story in The Washington Post. Calls have come in to animal control offices reporting "crazy squirrels" that are "eating garbage, inhaling bird feed (and) greedily demolishing pumpkins."

Great. As if we didn't have enough problems without this.

In my experience, squirrels have never been particularly shy. And now that they're starving, we have the prospect of the emboldened rodents breaking into the house and raiding the fridge. I can handle a squirrel eating the occasional garden vegetable, but when they come knocking on the door asking for my recipe for eggplant au gratin, I believe they are taking things too far.

When we visited my in-laws, Bob and Alice Sue, for Thanksgiving in Northern Virginia, we couldn't help but notice what appeared to be a large, round and red growth popping out of a small crotch at the top of a young tree.

On closer inspection, it revealed itself to be an apple that one of these destitute squirrels had lugged into the crown. But an apple is not as storable as a nut, so the animal had to make do as best he could. So if you start seeing watermelons and country hams showing up in the treetops, this is what's going on.

Of course it will only be a matter of time until the alarmists, of which I am one, translate the acorn disappearance into a climatic portent of doom.

"Let's hope it's not something ghastly going on with the natural world," said one naturalist.

Oh, let's hope that it is. It would take our mind off the unemployment rate. Besides, isn't that in the Bible someplace? "And thoust shall knowest it is the end of days when thine acorns driest up from thine mightiest oak and thine squirrels shall freakest out."

Well, maybe not in the Bible proper, but somewhere in the footnotes.

There might be a simple explanation for all of this. With an eye toward self-preservation, tree species produce more nuts during times of stress, such as droughts. Last year was wet, so maybe they just afforded themselves a year off. I'm down with that.

If I can go a year without producing anything of value, who am I to criticize an oak tree?

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist. He can be reached at 301-733-5131, ext. 2324, or via e-mail at timr@herald-mail.com.

  

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