The Native Black Walnut Tree and Western Gray Squirrel in the Fall

A Western Gray Squirrel with a black walnut nut in its mouth.
Finally a chance to sit and eat!
A native black walnut tree after a severe frost that has dropped most of its branchlets on the ground.

When I think back to last year at this time, I remember that we already had a little rain, so things were not as dry as they are this year. Some of the trees, such as the Black oaks and some Valley oaks, did not even bother changing into their fall colors and went directly to brown. But one thing that is the same every year is the frenetic activity of the California gray squirrel. Fortunately for them, this year there are plenty of nuts to go around. The oaks seem to have enough acorns for every squirrel in the vicinity, and in some stands, more than an abundance of acorns.

Here on the project besides the acorns we have quite a few native Black walnuts, Juglans hindsii. This is a lovely deciduous tree that can grow from 30 to 60 feet tall, usually with one main trunk, though the ones I am looking at growing along Outlet creek appear to be multitrunked. Black walnut can have a diameter of 6 feet at the base. It is endemic only to California though cultivated and grown in other parts of the United States and in the world. It has been used for over 100 years and still currently as a rootstock for the English walnut, as this practice imbues disease resistance to the trees and makes them better adapted to native soils. The Black walnuts along Outlet creek usually turn a dull yellow orange color, but I notice that there are greenish leaflets all over the ground under these trees. They all look like they fell at the same time, in unison, before having changed to their fall colors. Why would that happen? Is it the drought? Or is it the cold? A couple weeks ago the temperature in the valley got down to 27 degrees but during the day it got to 95 degrees. That is an extreme change in temperature when it has not really been even in the upper 30s. What is left behind on the branches are lots of walnuts hanging conspicuously from all the branches.

This is a lucky thing for the Western gray squirrel, Sciurus griseus. The Black walnut trees along Outlet creek seem to be a favorite of the many Western gray squirrels that live in the valley. They are jumping from limb to limb, often with a large nut in their mouths. As I stated last year in my blog about these wonderful California native resident mammals, autumn is an important time of year for food gathering and caching nuts. They are busy, busy, busy hiding nuts, stashing nuts, and eating them too! If you have experienced a crazy looking gray squirrel running out in front of your car recently, this is what they are up to. No thought for the dangers of being run over, they are all focused on getting ready for the winter dearth of food sources.

The squirrel I am watching is now taking a break to have a snack of a delicious black walnut. I can hear the crunching of the very hard shell as it becomes free and is enjoyed by the squirrel. Picking one up from under the tree I try to crack it with first my teeth and then try stomping on it, but to no avail. That nut will not crack. Now I look up at that squirrel with great admiration as I think about all those times I have seen Common Ravens use the telephone wires to drop one of these nuts on the roadway and have a car run over it to crack it! It takes powerful teeth and I imagine perseverance and a handy tool to get that tasty nut out. Acorns are not as hard shelled as walnuts. Both have plenty of tannins, fat, and protein for wildlife and people to ingest.

With the dry, hot, and long summer season, fall is a welcome change. It is a good thing there are plenty of acorns and walnuts for our wildlife.