Wild Profile: Meet the red oak tree

Published: October 13, 2020

Close-up of red oak tree leaves in fall By Surasaka27/Shutterstock

Like deciduous species all over cottage country, the red oak tree bursts forth with brilliant colours in the fall. Red is right: the green leaves turn rusty or ruby when the perfect leaf-changing environmental conditions set in (shorter days and dropping temperatures). But red oaks are spectacular for another reason. Their large crops of tasty acorns feed an entire forest of birds and mammals.

Why do leaves change colour in fall?

A red oak acorn contains only one large seed, which grows over two summers. Acorns are high in fat and carbohydrates; that makes them a great food source for critters that need to bulk up or store food for the winter. Squirrels start gathering them as early as July, when they’re still green. Bears, meanwhile, climb trunks and pull on limbs in the tree’s crown to get at these treats; look for clusters of broken branches at the top of the tree. (Fact alert! It’s called a “bear nest” even though the bears aren’t using the tree for sleeping.) By the time most of a red oak’s acorns have fallen to the ground—usually by mid-October—wood ducks, ruffed grouse, deer, mice, and even foxes profit from the bounty. Yummy!

Like other trees, red oaks produce a bumper crop of seeds about every four years. This means a tree might sprout only a few dozen acorns one year, and thousands the next. Which, of course, influences the animals that rely on the food source for survival. Acorn crops can have a big impact. Lots of nuts one year can mean that lots of deer are able to sustain themselves through to the spring; a small crop, meanwhile, could mean more animals raiding and destroying birds’ nests. (No acorns for rodents to eat? They turn to snatching unattended eggs instead.) Any acorns that aren’t eaten eventually germinate and turn into new red oak trees in the spring. And the cycle continues.

Check out these 7 routes to drive for spectacular fall colours

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