Mast drop essential for wild boar and other wildlife
The quantity and quality of mast dropped from trees has a profound, life-sustaining influence on big and small wildlife during coming winters. Read why and what we know about masting trees.
California received above-average rainfall during 2018-19, with a particularly wet spring season. “With a return to favorable weather patterns, and good acorn production, there should be ample opportunities to hunt tree squirrels this year,” said Matt Meshriy, an environmental scientist with CDFW’s Upland Game Program.
The size and time of the mast drop nuts determines the health of many wildlife species. Squirrels, deer, bears, many birds, and wild pigs depend greatly on mast of all kinds to maintain healthy, strong bodies to survive the winter.
In recent years, approximately 10,000 to 15,000 hunters have reported hunting tree squirrels annually and their combined statewide bag has ranged from 50,000 to 75,000. Tree squirrels are big consumers of mast nuts. They also further the growth of new trees by burying the mast nuts for later use.
Their biggest competitor and big time consumers of mast are feral pigs and true wild boar. In fall, pigs fatten up on mast to store enough energy for a long winter. Mast is also significant for the reproductive health of sows.
What exactly are mast nuts?
Mast nuts are the nuts, seeds or buds of trees and shrubs. Mast comes in two consistencies, hard mast and soft mast. Hard nuts are, for example, acorns, hickory nuts, and walnuts. In other words, had mast comes in hard shells or is hard in itself.
Soft mast includes the berries and fruits of trees and shrubs. Crabapples, blueberries, and the fruit of serviceberry trees and shrubs belong to this category. Most are sweet and tasty. None are poisonous.
Some botanists include the winged seeds of trees such as maple and elm, as well as pine seeds and nuts and even buds, hips, and catkins such as rose hips in the category of soft mast.
Whether hard or soft, mast is an important food item for wildlife. Animals consume mast drop in great quantities to store fat energy for the winter. Just how much they can gobble up depends on the nature of the mast year.
There are good, outstanding, and mediocre mast years. Mast trees flood the forest floor with an abundance of mast that is synchronized over a wide geographical area. In great mast years oak, white spruce, sugar maples, beech and hickory trees are all masting in a narrow time frame. When such a extraordinary masting event happens, the wind-pollinated, seed bearing trees (like oak, white spruce, sugar maple, beech and hickory) join the fruit bearing trees in a reproductive orgy that can extend over hundreds of square miles and a multitude of different mast trees and bushes.
Bumper crop mast cycles occur on average every two to five years. The in-between years produce anything from minimum to moderate mast drop. When that happens, wildlife can store less energy for the winter and for reproductive purposes.
Scientist and biologist are unable to explain what determines the cycle of good masting years and minimum mast production. There are numerous theories, many conflicting, but hardly any solid explanation based on evidence.
Wild pigs, good masting years and boar hunters.
Understanding the mechanics of masting may be of great importance to biologists but is it really so important to the average hunter?
I doubt it. Hunters only need to know that big game optimizes efforts to forage and store much needed reserves for the winter by concentrating on mast rich areas in late summer and early fall. In California, mast trees drop their seeds and nuts starting in early September. How early or late the mast drop will occur depends on the overall weather conditions.
Wild pigs devote much of their time in those months to finding and exploiting mast from mast trees. The boar will congregate in great numbers in areas with mast trees. And, guess what, that is exactly where a boar hunter will find his game. Under the oak or beech tree, third tree on the left or is it the right?
Though wild pigs and other big game will consume most of the dropped mast nuts, the pigs also have a beneficial effect on the propagation of trees. Their rooting behavior and messy eating habits will churn over the soil and in the process bury mast seeds in the dirt to germinate.
Bears, on the other hand, are more adept in harvesting the soft and sweet fruit of serviceberry. Not that boar would easily pass up a delicious, sweet snack but they find it easier to scour the ground for mast than to strip fruit from bushes and trees.
Boar hunters unite and follow your quarry to a good stand of oak or similar mast trees. You can forgo your expensive guide, invest in better and newer equipment instead and harvest your wild pig under a tree. Which tree, you ask? If you have to ask then you did not pay attention to what I said before. The oak tree, my friend. The beech tree and any other place with mast trees. Now, go get your wild pig.
Inquiring minds who prefer to sit on the couch and read scientific studies instead of traipsing around in the heat and dust, can find information on mast trees and the unsolved puzzle of the concerted, timed mast drop in wide areas. They are published in the results of a 11 year study on 10 separate sites covering over 434 miles by Dr. Marc Abrams, a professor of forestry at Penn State, California. More research data are published by the University of California in a report on Oak Woodland Management.
Now is the time to look for stands of mast tree, evaluate the quantity of mast nuts on the trees, and look for wild pigs feasting on dropped mast nuts.