From Wild Turkeys to White Oaks

by Joan Greene

My natural instinct a few days before Thanksgiving 2020 is to write about wild turkeys. But just as I was into my third or fourth paragraph of waxing on about the Tennessee wild turkey population and signs of decline in certain counties, a colleague sent me an engaging blog about turkeys written by Frances Figart, Creative Services Director, Smokies Live, Great Smokey Mountains Association.  I’ve included a link to that blog at the end of this one.

Wild Turkeys are found in most Tennessee counties although there are signs of decline.

If I were writing on an old-style typewriter I’d rip the paper out from the carriage and toss it into a wire waste paper basket.  Since modern computers do not offer or encourage such dramatics, I started thinking about food sources, shelter for the coming winter and renewal each spring.  Somehow I went from wild turkeys to white oaks.  It turns out that the acorns of the majestic white oak are a food source for a wide array of birds including turkeys, pheasants, grackles, woodpeckers, jays, thrushes, nuthatches and others. In addition, mammals as large as black bear and deer and as small as rabbits, squirrels, voles and mice include the acorns in their diets. Populations of some species fluctuate in proportion to the amount of white oak acorns available each year.

According to Entomologist Doug Tallamy’s book, Bringing Nature Home, “White Oak supports a staggering 537 species of butterfly and moth caterpillars. These caterpillars are critical baby food for 95% of all our young songbirds... for the first month or two of their lives." 

The White Oak (Quercus alba) is a long-lived species that has slow growth.  It is native to the Eastern United States and can grow over 100 feet tall with an average of 50 to 80 feet tall.  The tree is vital to the wildlife that exists around it.  The “National Audubon Society Field Guide to Trees” notes that white oak has the nickname “Stave Oak”, as its wood is used in making barrels.  Additionally for centuries it has been a staple in making furniture, flooring, and beams.  It is called white oak because of the light, nearly white color of the wood when freshly cut.

Tennessee Wild Oak Trees live up to 600 years and are so important to the ecosystem.

According to the Tennessee State Tree Nursery their seedling nursery sold out of White Oak within 2 hours after they offered this year’s saplings in early September 2020.  

How to identify the White Oak by its leaves is simple.  The leaves are three to five inches wide with seven to nine rounded end lobes on each leaf.  By contrast a Red Oak’s leaves have jagged edges.

This fall I noticed several calls for White Oak acorns as there is concern over the decline of White Oak trees in Tennessee.  Periodically there is a decline in the trees for various reasons, disease, habitat loss, age of trees, weather, soil and insects. According to the 2010 Tennessee Resource Assessment and Strategy, “White oak decline is currently the most pervasive problem within the forests of Tennessee. The Western Highland Rim and the Cumberland Plateau have the highest risk although oak decline is an issue in any oak forest.”  If you are interested in knowing more about White Oaks in your area and how to share acorns from your property during fall 2021 contact your local forester, extension agent or Division of Forestry personnel for advice on healthy oak forest management and how to collect, and save acorns for the Tennessee State Tree Nursery.

Acorns contain tannins, which are bitter and toxic chemicals found in many plant materials. The compounds are present in lower levels within white oak acorns than within red oak acorns, making white oak acorns more palatable to animals. White oak acorns mature over one summer, drop in autumn, and quickly germinate.  The period for pollination is only around 10 days for all oaks, so environmental conditions can make or break the resulting acorn crop. Acorn production goes through dramatic boom-and-bust cycles, where some years the “mast” (acorn crop and other nuts, such as hickory) is extremely high and in others it is absent. In years where conditions align against oak fertilization, white oaks will produce very few acorns while red oaks may still drop vast quantities. This is because the red oaks mature two years after fertilization, so a red oak tree typically has acorns of different ages on an individual tree.

A tiny Chipmunk feasting on acorns.

White Oak acorns germinate quickly and send out shoots to attach themselves to the ground.  Squirrels are considered a main planter of white oak trees as they often forget their stash and may find them already sprouted. Red oak acorns are better fuel for the winter, but carry more tannins.

This Thanksgiving is a perfect day to get out into nature, identify White Oak leaves, listen for the call of wild turkeys and share the wonder of Tennessee nature on your own or with friends and family.  


Want to learn more about becoming a certified Tennessee Naturalist?  We have ten chapters located in various areas of Tennessee.


Blog on Wild Turkeys

And just because I enjoy adding something that I found while doing research. The following is a video on how to crochet an acorn.