Here we are just barely into the official season of winter and we have had 4 snows already. This, in a place where 1 snow fall a year is exciting. As I mentioned in the last post here, not only did it snow, but we totaled around 8 inches!
For the horses here in Carova Beach, this winter has been a bit unusual to say the least. Typically this time of the year, the wild horses have moved primarily into the martime forest to feed on the live oak acorns. This is actually something that makes our horses stand apart from equines the world over, that is, their ability to consume large quanities of acorns. If you have ever tried to eat an acorn than you have probably experienced the extreme bitterness that comes with the large quantities of tannic acids that are in the shells of the acorns. Oak trees produce nuts full of this stuff because the tannic acid inhibits growth of other species around the tree. So when acorns fall, they come fully equipped with chemical weapons to not only help cut down on competition with its parent tree, but also to help kill off any would be competitors it will one day have itself. This is a phenemenon in nature known as allopathy, as in the Greek “allo” for other and “pathy” for suffering.
Here in the eastern part of North America, most indeginous species of animals handle the tannic acids just fine. Think about. Squirls, deer, pigs, turkeys all eat acorns. Horses however are not supposed to be able to do this. Those tannic acids routinely create serious health problems for domesticated and even other populations of wild horses. These horses on the Outer Banks however never got that memo though. And therefore come each winter, horses move back into the forests to dine upon the tannin rich acorns of the dominant species of tree on our barrier islands.
This year however, the acorn crop failed. Most live oaks produced no nuts at all, and those that did, produced only a small amount. For animals that needs between 30 and 50 lbs of food a day for survival like the horse, this low yield effectively eliminated the primary winter time food source for the Banker horse.
In response to this, thus far the horses have been eeking out a living on the browned out high fibrous stems of grasses and other browse still left over from the fall. In a typical winter, when we experience a significant snow fall, the canopy of the live oaks is thick enough (they stay green all year round, hence the name “live oak”) to keep much of the snow from accumulating directly beneath the trees – much like thick spruce and fir trees in the mountains. This means that even with snow, food is still readily available. With no food to be found beneath the protective canopy of the forest however, and what little food that has been available now buried under 8 inches of snow, the horses responded by moving out onto the sand dunes at the edge of the beach, where sea oats stand waving in the breeze some 3 feet above the snow and the wind is strong enough to expose what is left over from this summer’s crop of American beach grass.
Its interesting to note that the sea oats are a favorite food source come August and September for these horses. Yet this year, I was puzzled to find that the horses were neglecting the sea oats all together. By doing so however, it would appear that they left themselves a sort of emergency backup rations. All this leaves me pondering the question as to whether or not the horses may have known food would be scarce this winter? Most wildlife of course, is attuned to the rhythms of nature. Its just us humans that have become deaf and blind to such things – thank you Weather.com