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Posted at 11:00 AM ET, 12/ 3/2008

Squirrels Achin' for Acorns, Attack Pumpkins

By Ann Posegate

Wx and the City

* Another Cold Snap Looms: Full Forecast | Politico's Climate Controversy *

By John Mossesso Jr. Courtesy the National Biological Information Infrastructure digital image library.

Two days after Halloween, while in Arlington, I happened to see a squirrel devour a front-porch pumpkin. At first, I thought it was cute. But I quickly realized that I'd never seen this before, and wondered why the squirrel was so hungry. Other nearby porch pumpkins had bite marks and holes in them as well.

A few weeks later, I noticed this comment by gpmega in response to our Winter Outlook:

"Ok, this may be a bit silly, but... All over my Arlington neighborhood, and in other areas around DC (according to a very unscientific survey of my coworkers), the squirrels ate large portions of the jack-o-lanterns. This is the first time I've ever seen such behavior. Are they fattening up for a severe winter, perhaps???"

Keep reading for more on the strange behavior of area squirrels and the role weather might play...

According to folklore, "squirrels gathering nuts in a flurry will cause snow to gather in a hurry." Does this apply to pumpkins too? Or is the lack of acorns the work of thousands of squirrels across the region tricking us with swift acorn-gathering in the middle of the night? While there is scientific evidence of squirrels' caching behavior (storing nuts for winter), little is known about a direct relationship to the severity of the coming winter.

This fall was a fateful season for Jack O' Lanterns and pumpkins across the region. According to a recent Washington Post article, squirrels in Northern Virginia, parts of Maryland and the District have been chowing down on pumpkins, bird seed and garbage scraps because there are few to no acorns to be found. It seems that oak trees in the D.C. area and other places did not produce an acorn crop this year, and one culprit might be weather.

Being a nut-bearing tree, an oak's life cycle is directly tied to seasons, and its productivity is dependent on weather. For example, white oak tree flowers are pollinated in the spring; acorns grow and mature throughout the summer; and acorns fall to the ground in autumn. According to the U.S. Forest Service, anthers (the flower parts that produce pollen) on white oak flowers open and close with changes in humidity. Also, a very rainy spring can damage flowers, delay pollen production or reduce pollen dispersal. The most productive white oak acorn seasons are those with a stretch of 10 warm days followed by a few weeks of cool days; whereas, the least productive are those in which cool temperatures precede warm.

The weather could be one factor in the lack of acorn crop this year. As you may recall, spring of 2008 was wet, with a May rainfall total of 10.66 inches -- the second wettest on record. The rainy spring was preceded by several months of drought.

Even though a single mature white oak can produce 10,000 acorns annually, it will also go through years of little to no acorn production depending on external conditions. One year without acorns shouldn't cause us too much worry. However, it is definitely something to monitor; if the lack of acorn crop becomes a trend, this behavior could be an indication of other environmental and climatic factors at play.

Want to help monitor the seasonal life-cycle events of plants or animals? Check out the USA National Phenology Network's citizen science projects, where you can volunteer to help monitor changes in plant and animal life cycles and behavior.

For now, watch out for hungry squirrels...

By Ann Posegate  | December 3, 2008; 11:00 AM ET
Categories:  Nature, Posegate, Wx and the City  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: Forecast: Another Cold Snap Looms
Next: PM Update: More Cold Approaches; TV Shuffle


Nice link to Mr. Freedman's column! And as evidenced by the high number of comments at Mr. Freedman's column, the "in your face" politics is clearly paying high dividends. Oh wait, the number of comments is dropping across the board you say. Hmmm... I wonder why.

Another fine example of what Dan calls, "We try to tease all of our content equally, ..."

Mr. Q.

Posted by: Mr_Q | December 3, 2008 11:30 AM | Report abuse

Here on the south side of Richmond the white oaks had a bumper crop of acorns. Ive never seen such fat, happy, and numerous squirrels in my life.

P.S. Mr. Q, do us a favor and go away.

Posted by: MrRichmond | December 3, 2008 11:47 AM | Report abuse

MrRichmond -- Keep it down, otherwise the squirrels up here will catch on and scamper southward to steal some of that bounty :)

Posted by: Dan-CapitalWeatherGang | December 3, 2008 11:55 AM | Report abuse

Mr. Q is really becoming a jerk. Mr. Q- you are not funny and your constant bards should be saved for possibly creating a counter blog to the CWx commentary.

Posted by: GregRAINMAN | December 3, 2008 12:26 PM | Report abuse

I am waiting for some right winger to come on here and blame this on ACORN, the voter registration group Obama was connected to.

(posting this since the subject is what a bad years it's been for nuts)

Posted by: B2O2 | December 3, 2008 2:18 PM | Report abuse

Ann! You are my favorite.

Posted by: LaurainNWDC | December 3, 2008 2:32 PM | Report abuse

And MR. Q!!!! Every post has a link to the posts that preceded and followed it. EVERY POST. Or at least almost every post. That's how the blog works.

It's not a "nice link," it's a LINK.

Posted by: LaurainNWDC | December 3, 2008 2:36 PM | Report abuse


I am not referring to the "Previous" and "Next" link at the bottom of each posting. I am referring to the big link directly beneath the post's title. For example, on this post, the title is "Squirrels Achin' for Acorns, Attack Pumpkins
Wx and the City". Directly beneath that, you will find a link to Mr. Freedman's column. Mr. Freedman's column is NOT the prior post. It was three posts ago.

Now that you know where to look, go to the homepage, and take a closer look at it. You will see Mr. Freedman's column, and then you will see a link to Mr. Freedman's column on the three posts following Mr. Freedman's column. Right there on the home page.

I find getting politics stuffed in my face when reading a weather forecast distasteful, to put it mildly. But what really puzzles me is why Dan said "We try to tease all of our content equally, ..." Clearly, a quick scan at their homepage reveals that statement to be false. A five year old could see it. So why would Dan say something that is clearly and obviously not true? That is what I find truly puzzling. And I mean that sincerely. No sarcasm. No joking. Nothing. I don't get that. It doesn't make any sense.

Mr. Q.

Posted by: Mr_Q | December 3, 2008 3:32 PM | Report abuse

Mr._Q -- This is the last I'll bother to respond to your comment on this particular issue. If you were to have looked at our site pretty much any day over the past few weeks, you'd see that the links you are referring to are always there, and always teasing previous or upcoming posts for that day, the day before, and sometimes that which is planned for the next day. Doesn't matter what the topic of the post is. Today just happens to be the day after a column related to climate change. Tomorrow will happen to be a day after an article about squirrels. So your assertion that my statement is false is, ironically, false.

Posted by: Dan-CapitalWeatherGang | December 3, 2008 3:42 PM | Report abuse

In general, everyone I know in meteorology has a passing interest in environmental science, so anyone thinking the weather report should or will be free of politics is fooling themselves in the era of global climate change. Sorry, but ever since the Killer Smog accident in Pittsburg in 1948 caused by Zinc manufacturing plants, the weather reports have been politicized. Oh, that sent 6000 people to the hospital and 20 died. Kind of a big deal in 1948 and changed our view of weather and health forever.

That said, I recognized the missing Acorn issue in September, as evidenced by an email to a friend about it, but I am convinced it has more to do with a mild winter last year causing a squirrel and rat population explosion. We have many more gray squirrels in the city than last year at this time.

Posted by: bbcrock | December 3, 2008 3:48 PM | Report abuse

the acorn thing is really interesting to me because i had TONS of acorns at my house in greenbelt early this fall.

i'd love to see where acorns were this year and weren't. i wonder what's different between my area and arlington? rainfall? temperature? a combination of factors?

Posted by: r3hsad | December 3, 2008 4:32 PM | Report abuse

Folks in the D.C. area may notice fewer squirrels later this coming winter and next year if a "hard mast" failure occurred with the oak's.

Squirrels will sometimes migrate more than a hundred miles in search of food when a mast failure occurs within a given area, and sometimes they will not return in large numbers for years. Squirrel population density is always in flux within more remote or wilderness areas because of total or partial mast failures from year to year.

The most often occuring reason for a mast failure is a late killing frost in the spring as the acorn's are "setting".

Posted by: AugustaJim | December 3, 2008 5:13 PM | Report abuse

Mast crop produce constantly changes from yr 2 yr, 1 yr it may be heavy, the next poor. Their r a # of reasons 4 the constant fluctunation, rainfall, temps, & the amount of mast produced in the previous yr. I would expect the mast crop in the effected area 2 be much greater next yr. Plenty of acorns here in Spotsy.

Posted by: VaTechBob | December 3, 2008 5:47 PM | Report abuse

my only concern is the Al Gore Nut's MR. Q. L O L anyway where are all the regular posters from last winter?? maybe they had there fill with all the nuts already over the summer.

Posted by: deveinmadisonva | December 3, 2008 6:06 PM | Report abuse

LaurainNWDC: Thanks!

bbcrock: The Post article also mentions the boom in gray squirrel population this year, thanks to a great acorn crop last year. I guess this is a lesson in natural population regulation - that is, unless the squirrels start dumpster-diving.

And it's true, weather and environmental science are inextricable - can't have one without the other.

AugustaJim: Check out this story from the St. Louis Express in 1859 about a swarm of squirrels that was followed by a severe winter (scroll to the bottom of the page).

Posted by: Ann-CapitalWeatherGang | December 3, 2008 6:31 PM | Report abuse

bbcrock wrote, "... so anyone thinking the weather report should or will be free of politics is fooling themselves ..."

That is complete and utter nonsense. Just saying something doesn't make it true.

The weather report should be free of politics. And there are plenty of meteorologists who provide their weather reports sans politics.

Mr. Q.

Posted by: Mr_Q | December 3, 2008 7:01 PM | Report abuse

That is a classic example of a squirrel migration.

I have witnessed this once in my lifetime and it is truly an unbelievable experience!!

Posted by: AugustaJim | December 3, 2008 7:26 PM | Report abuse

Let's talk about possible upcoming snow events in the next 10 days. Wasting our time or Mr. Q is just that. He is obviously just looking for attention.

Posted by: bgor | December 3, 2008 8:42 PM | Report abuse

Mr. Q,
I find it extremely hard to believe that any of the forecasts on that we put forth have any political flavor to them at all. However, our site provides scientific insight and news relating to atmospheric science in addition to providing your forcast. You seem to have taken offense to these other articles much more often than our actual weather reports. Also, just because someones views do not align with your personal opinions does not mean that they have a political agenda. While I have only been a part of the gang for a relatively short period of time, I have yet to see an article where the main focus is to further a strictly political policy. Just because a political party may have adopted a way of thinking, that way of thinking does not adopt that party. As scientists, our objective is to test theories, research problems, and promote our results and conclusions, not become elected officials.

Posted by: Brian-CapitalWeatherGang | December 3, 2008 8:57 PM | Report abuse

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