Most of us, whether or not we have farming or even gardening in our blood, think of fall as harvest time. The September full moon is known as the harvest moon, fall celebrations are often-as-not called harvest festivals, and those of us who do tend gardens keep them limping along in the face of imminent frost before canning, freezing, or storing our food in root cellars.
The reason – which we try to avoid thinking about – is that winter is coming, the time when we need to go to the larder to find food. At the moment, fresh food is plentiful, but not for long. Animals are facing that same realization, and in these months of autumn, we see them preparing for winter. Some migrate, preferring to head south, where the living is easier. But mammals and some birds do not migrate, instead facing winter with their own strategies for food storage.
Some mammals slow down in winter, moving into sheltered dens and entering periodic states of torpor. To live off the fat of their backs, they need to build those fat reserves, which is why black bears eat ravenously in the late summer and fall, adding one-third of their body weight in the months before they den up.
Deer also build fat reserves to help them through a winter of scarce food, when they will only seek winter rations of tree buds if the food is worth the effort. In the fall, however, they seize the day, seeking the same beechnuts and acorns – if available – that the bears thrive on. Turkeys and ruffed grouse are also competing for these prize foods, full of protein and fat. Beechnuts – which are 19 percent protein and a whopping 50 percent fat – are the best food there is for getting in shape for winter. Soft mast – berries, grapes, and other fruits – is important, but in comparison is more like dessert.
Some animals – squirrels, blue jays, and chickadees, for instance – stay relatively active throughout the winter. To do so successfully, they need to cache their food, their version of stocking a root cellar, although in the case of birds, they do it one seed at a time. Squirrels and mice pile it on, and their caches might be found in any sheltered place, including your attic.
Fall foliage is beautiful indeed, but the changing of the leaves also serves to illustrate this cycle from plenty to empty. The food value of leaves peaks when they’re green, diminishes when they lose chlorophyll and change color, and disappears when they dry up on the forest floor. At that point, their wildlife value is mainly as cover and ultimately as fertilizer to help food grow once again next year.
Stephen Long is a founding editor of Northern Woodlands.