How to Protect Nuts From Animals

Protecting Your Chinquapin Nuts From Animals

Preemptive measures to prevent excessive animal predation will allow you to get the most nuts from your Ozark chinquapin trees

Illustrations and article by A.J. Hendershott

Raising chinquapins for nut harvest has a lot in common with gardening and farming.  There are rewards and challenges.  Most everyone wants to eat the nuts or give them away to others so they can grow the trees.  But before any of that can happen there are major hurdle on the way to nut collection. 

Varmints

Oh, I could say animals or wildlife competition.  But when you first realize you have to beat the animals to these nuts it feels a little more personal than that. It’s like a hometown football rivalry.  Those cute feathered or furry critters quickly become varmints as you realize their watering mouths crave your chinquapins.  It really does become a rivalry because you worked so hard to establish, nurture and protect those trees.  Then when you want your just reward for all that effort you find the nuts missing!

But this isn’t just about pride or personal aggravation.  This is about saving a species and learning to keep the animals away from some of the seed is important. 

I join the large group of you that planted these trees specifically for wildlife benefit.   So, let’s consider more about how to ensure at least some of your tree’s nuts wind up in your collection basket. 

Sizing Up The Opposition

Above: Squirrel reaching for nuts inside burr

Steve Bost is one of a handful of people who have a lot of experience in the 21st century collecting chinquapin nuts.  He does this for research purposes and to supply nuts to Ozark Chinquapin Foundation members.  Through the years more and more wildlife have been attracted the chinquapin restoration and research plots 

According to Bost, “In a wild setting the life expectancy of ripe Ozark chinquapin nuts on the ground may only be only 1-4 hours before being eaten by deer, turkey, bears, squirrels, chipmunks, and a variety of birds.  After dark the night shift takes over; packrats, mice, flying squirrels, raccoons and opossums go to work.”  

Even flying squirrels can cache up to 15,000 nuts in a season.  This involves a variety of nuts and even seeds. 

That seed life expectancy may depend on location, but a wild site in the Ozarks teaming with wildlife would certainly fit the expectations set forth by Bost.  Because the chinquapin is low in tannic acid and has a pleasant flavor, many animals relish these nuts.  Bost has observed deer resting near a chinquapin stand only to get up as they hear nuts drop.  They will wander around foraging on any exposed nuts they find on the ground, and then go back to laying down until more nuts drop. 

Above: Flying squirrel
Above: Bluejay with chinquapin seed
Above: Bear eating Ozark chinquapin
Above: Crow with chinquapin seed

“A word of caution about not returning to your chinquapin trees loaded with ripening nuts for more than a week…  Ozark chinquapins are yearly consistent producers of high protein and carbohydrate nuts.  In years of low acorn and hickory nut production, hungry squirrels can easily strip a tree clean of ALL chinquapin nuts in 3-5 days,” Bost said.   

Bost speaks from experience. Bost explains it is important to understand the squirrels will, “even chew the end of branches off and carry it away with the burs.  They will then chew into the back of the spiky bur where it is connected to the branch and eat the unripe green nuts.”

In years where there is a nut crop failure in other species and plenty of squirrels, protecting the chinquapin seeds becomes paramount.   Especially when those seeds are specific crosses for breeding program use or seeds for members.  As a consequence, Bost and other board members have to get creative in how to project the nuts. 

If you want to avoid nut harvest losses from wildlife here are some methods for you to consider. 

Strategies

Squirrel Repellant 

Bost developed his own concoction for discouraging squirrels from chewing on burs to reach the nuts. 

“One very effective field proven method I came up with to keep the squirrels from eating your Ozark chinquapin nuts is to spray your burs, trunk, leaves and ground under your trees 2-3 times a week with a mixture of chopped jalapeno & powdered Cayan pepper, powdered garlic and powdered mint.  Cook the mixed ingredients on medium for 40 minutes in a pot with 2 gallons of water, strain through a tea shirt and pour into a 2-gallon sprayer that will reach up into the canopy.  All ingredients can be bought at your local grocery store.  It contains no pesticide, does not touch the nut meat, the area smells like a great restaurant. It works!” (Image 6) Spraying fresh repellant is important because if it is left in the sprayer the repellant goes rancid quickly.

FB_IMG_1632768338229
Image 6. Squirrel repellant ingredients

Wire Screens

The spray does wonders with the only downside being it has to be reapplied from time to time.  Also, assuming the squirrels can reach your tree from other trees, you have to be able to reach the burs to apply the spray.   For situations where the seeds are out of normal and regular reach, Bost will place wire screen around the burs. (Image 7) This becomes a chew proof barrier that clever squirrels can’t negate.

Then when it is time to collect the nuts Bost simply uses a hook to pull the branch down for harvest or lops the bur cluster off, wire mesh and all. 

Bost indicated, “I only have to climb the tree or use a ladder once to put the mesh on the cluster.  After that everything else can be done from the ground.”

There is a limitation with this method; it requires some time and effort to apply the wire mesh and covering every single bur cluster can be prohibitive.  This option works well to protect a handful of bur clusters that you know have been crossed with a blight resistant tree. It also works well if your trees are relatively short, young, and are not numerous.  When the trees get tall, or you are dealing with dozens of them the wire mesh can only be so helpful. 

Image 7. Wire screen bag to prevent animal predation

Traps

When the rivalry is severe, and the squirrels just won’t give up sometimes.  Things have to go to the next level.  In those cases, Bost has been known to place a trap in the branches that only a squirrel would come in contact with. 

“I use a conibear trap intended for mink, or victor rat traps tied to the branch so when the squirrels trip the lever they are caught,” says Bost. 

When leg hold traps are used on squirrels in this manner, they are lethal.  Keep in mind that all the people who monitor chinquapin research plots often have other responsibilities and day jobs, so the squirrels have the run of the orchard.  If no actions are taken, then we will lose nuts.  It can be the difference between 600 – 1000 nuts collected or a few dozen.  The method is not used lightly, and other methods are also employed at the same time. 

Raccoons can also be problematic and require trapping.  For those who desire to trap and relocate here are some important facts to consider.  A raccoon or squirrel needs to be taken several miles away if you plan to release it.  A shorter distance will allow the animal to find its way back to the grove.   Research has been done on releases like this and it has been shown that relocated animals struggle in a new area because they are unfamiliar with where food, water and shelter are.  And when they do find those things there are already other members of the same species there to defend their territory.  So, life for relocated animals is hard and often leads to a slow death. Up to 75% of relocated animals die in this way.  Therefore, lethal methods are more humane by comparison.  Just check with your local wildlife agency to ensure you are in compliance with laws and regulations.

A related method would be to hunt or allow hunting to limit the population.  Hunting as regulated by state agencies is an effective way to manage wildlife populations. Many people in the early 1900s used to purposely seek out chinquapin groves to hunt squirrels because they were a magnet for them. 

When it comes to protecting your chinquapin crop you need to understand wildlife will grow to love those seeds as much as you do.  In most cases that is the whole reason the tree is planted to benefit wildlife.  When you need to keep at least some of the seeds you may want to employ the repellant or wire mesh strategy.  If you are a hunter and like squirrel meat, then trapping or hunting might help you. 

Regardless of what you decide to do wildlife will be attracted to your chinquapin trees, and that is a great thing.  We want wildlife to take advantage of those seeds, but there are times when human interests are important too. 

Despite how prolific these individual trees are at producing seeds, they are still exceedingly rare.  Collecting nuts is important for growing new trees and getting them established all over the range.  Wildlife don’t mean to be a detriment toward restoring this tree to the landscape.  They are doing what comes naturally. 

“One thing I have to do some years, is explain to members why we don’t enough to seed to mail out; I really hate that,” says Bost.  Thus, he makes the time to discourage depredation of the chinquapin nuts.  

People have to step in and limit some seed from being consumed by wildlife so we can do the work of conservation.  We have to protect the seeds produced from two parents that show resistance to the blight.  That pollen is limited so those specific crosses must be protected.  Lastly, it is important that people get to eat some seeds too.  

“I have seen firsthand how people react to eating their first chinquapin nut.  Their faces light up and within seconds they want to save the tree so they can eat another nut someday,” Bost explained.

With the blight impacting trees, people have to step in.  Conservation is something that only people can do.   If tasting a nut is what gets them excited about protecting and restoring the tree, then our choice is simple.  Not all of the seeds can go to wildlife.  Wildlife alone will not save this species.  People will. Then one day in the not-so-distant future, collecting chinquapins will be on par with collecting walnuts and hickory nuts. 

So, we have to learn how to protect some of those precious seeds.  In the end wildlife will ultimately benefit as much as people do.

Image above: Deer feeding on Ozark chinquapin
Image above: Wild turkey feeding on delicious chinquapin nuts
Image above: Black bear eating chinquapin