Many species of wildlife are drawn to ice cream trees.
Now, that's a term you won't hear spoken in arborists' circles, but in terms of natural attraction, it might as well be. These trees yield a confection that doesn't appeal to human tastes, but lots of wild species seem to favor it over all others.
Wild mothers may lead their offspring to productive ice cream trees in season. Once there, they don't have to encourage their youngsters to eat.
If we must be botanically correct, let's identify these trees as white oaks. When these yield seeds, they drop white oak acorns, the oak's version of nut that is possibly the most desirable of all the oak-hickory hardwood forest's goodies.
The white oak acorn is a near perfect critter food. The meat of the seed is relatively generous per acorn, and the shell that covers it is thinner, softer and easier to penetrate than other nuts or acorns.
The meat of the white oak acorn is rich in nutrients, quickly putting fat onto the carcasses and increasing the survival odds of various critters. And atop all that, the white oak acorn is a good deal lower in tannic acid content than that of other acorns, making it far less bitter and effectively sweeter. The white oak acorn is easy to eat, and it tastes really good.
It's like ice cream to much wildlife, except It doesn't melt. It just doesn't last long on the ground because there are so many enthusiastic consumers.
Squirrels are obvious diners in and under white oaks, acorns being primary in their diets. Deer feed heavily on acorns, but they prioritize on white oaks. When white oak acorns are dropping, whitetails are known to nearly forsake other foods for as long as the sweet acorns are available.
The acorns have plenty of feathered fans, including wild turkeys that suck up oak seeds like woodland vacuums. Waterfowl and even smaller songbirds like blue jays love them.
All sorts of rodents from tiny mice to mid-sized groundhogs chow down on the white oaks' gifts. Numerous mammals tap into the wealth when it's there. Wild critters may have to rush to get their shares when domestic animals like cattle and hogs have access to the same tree groceries.
White oaks probably are the best-known oaks among people who can recognize at least some species from others. The bark suggests the name - not quite white, but at least light gray while being scaly and a little softer than the dark, hard bark of various red oaks.
The leaves of white oaks have rounded lobes, usually five to nine of them. The leaves are deeply and roundly indented, leaving the lobes as rather long, smooth finger-like projections. The rich green leaves of summer in the next few weeks will turn toward pinkish, red or maroon colors on the way toward the brown and dropping leaves of chilly weather.
The acorns themselves are relatively large and pointed, longer than rounded. The caps of the acorns are shallow and easily dislodged. Acorn length is usually up to an inch.
White oaks, the tree species, are a part of the larger white oak group, a few species with common traits. Other members of the group include post oaks, overcup oaks, swamp white oaks, bur oaks and chestnut oaks. Some of these produce acorns well liked by wildlife, but none quite have the attraction of the species white oak.
On the other side of the classification street are the red oaks, a group that includes the species northern red, southern red, cherrybark, black, scarlet, pin and willow oaks. In general, aside from darker and harder bark, leaves of red oak group trees have lobes with pointed tips.
An important distinction between all the white oak group trees and the red oak varieties is that the whites produce their acorns over a single growing season, while the reds need two seasons to grow and ripen their acorns.
The acorns that soon will be dropped by the white oaks, including the species of that name, started out in early spring this year. By contrast, this fall's yield of red oak acorns has been growing on those trees since spring of 2018.
That growth pattern may be central in general tendencies of acorn production. Red oak acorn crops tend to be more stable and moderated. They are more predictable, not often wildly bountiful but also seldom very poor. White oaks, however, occasionally have huge acorn crops, but they more often swing to the opposite extreme, with few or almost no acorns at all.
It's too early to know this year's acorn crop. There is survey work going on now that will provide a statewide picture. Meanwhile, a few anecdotal reports suggest a poor year for white oak acorns and a mediocre year for red oak acorns. That's essentially what happened last year.
This familiar scenario shows a bit of natural balance: Wildlife would really enjoy more white oak acorns, but with a mix of tree species out there, adequate red oak acorns will see that most critters won't face an empty pantry.
A few white oaks, however, predictably will produce richly amid the harder times for others. In those neighborhoods, word somehow gets out among the wildlife: While it lasts, there's ice cream this fall.
Steve Vantreese, a freelance outdoors writer, can be contacted at email@example.com.