“Mast” survey provides insights for deer, turkey hunters

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JEFFERSON CITY–Biologists call it “mast.” Deer call it food. To hunters, it is one key to understanding game animals’ behavior.

What is this stuff? Acorns, mostly. Wildlife biologists refer to fruits produced in forests, woodlands, and other habitat as “mast.” It can be “soft mast,” which includes berries and other highly perishable fruits, or “hard mast,” which is mostly nuts. In Missouri, those nuts are mostly from oaks – acorns.

The nutritious meat of acorns is the most abundant staple food for a wide array of animals, from squirrels and wood ducks to deer and turkey. When acorns are plentiful, wildlife prospers. When they are scarce, wildlife suffers.

Small animals with small home ranges must find other foods to fill the gap during periods of acorn shortage, or starve. But large, mobile animals like deer and turkey can and do go in search of areas where acorns are more plentiful.

The Missouri Department of Conservation works with the Missouri Forestkeepers Network each year to conduct a survey of acorn production. Forestry Division staff and citizen volunteers record how many acorns they see on trees belonging to the two groups of oaks – white and red. The combined data go into statewide and regional mast reports. This information helps the agency anticipate wildlife population trends and better understand the population dynamics of game animals. Savvy hunters use the same information to find-tune their hunting tactics.

For instance, last year’s report showed the lowest production of both red and white oak acorns in the 53-year history of the survey. Based on this information, experienced hunters knew deer would have to move around more than usual to find food. So it made sense to take a stand and wait for deer to come to them. If you could locate an alternative food source – a food plot or a streamside oak grove with more acorns – your chances of success were even better.

This year’s production was much better than in 2012. The mast survey showed fair to good acorn abundance statewide for both red and white oaks. The overall 2013 mast production index (MPI) was 120 percent higher than in 2012 and 15 percent above the 53-year average. White oaks showed the biggest improvement, jumping 260 percent from last year’s historic low. Red oak acorn production was up 120 percent from last year’s figures.

This means that taking a stand and waiting for deer will be a less-successful hunting tactic this year. Slipping slowly and quietly through the woods in search of deer will be more likely to yield success.

Regional acorn production generally mirrors the statewide trend, but there are some notable differences. Counties adjoining the Missouri River from Howard and Moniteau counties eastward, and those bordering the Mississippi River from Pike to Cape Girardeau counties led this year’s mast-production with MPIs solidly in the good range. Hunters in this area will be wise to take an active approach to hunting.

The western Ozarks, comprising McDonald, Barry, Stone, Taney, Ozark, Howell, Texas, Wright, Phelps, Pulaski, Maries, Miller, Camden, Laclede, and Douglas counties had the lowest MPI, dipping into the high part of the fair range. Hunters here might want to focus their efforts in areas with better acorn production or alternative food sources.

The remainder of the state straddled the line between fair and good. Hunting tactics there should be dictated by local conditions.

To view the full report, visit http://mdc.mo.gov/node/24697.