Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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Nature Bulletin No. 355-A    October 25, 1969
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
George W. Dunne, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation

Mast, according to Webster, was an Anglo-Saxon word for the nuts, especially beechnuts, which littered the forest floor and served as food for hogs, deer and grouse. In addition to nuts and acorns, the term is often extended to include the winged seeds of such trees as maple, elm and ash, and even the nuts or seeds of pines -- all eaten by wildlife.

Acorns, rich in starch, fat and vitamins, are now most widely available and most commonly eaten. The oily beechnuts on the uplands and pecans in the bottom lands are also important but much less so than in pioneer days. Until about 50 years ago, chestnuts -- now destroyed by a blight from Asia -- were of major importance in eastern United States. Hickory nuts, hazelnuts, walnuts and butternuts, because of their thick hard shells, are eaten principally by squirrels, chipmunks and their kin. In addition to mast, the fruits and berries of gum, cherry, persimmon, hawthorn, crabapple and other trees furnish much food for wildlife; and many shrubs and vines such as wild grape, blueberry and blackberry.

When the white man first came to America he found one of the greatest forests that ever existed. As the fur traders and explorers penetrated westward, they discovered that it extended in an almost unbroken stand from the Atlantic to the Mississippi except for occasional openings and the prairies of Illinois which extended eastward into central Indiana. The central portion, although there were mixed stands of pines and hemlock in certain regions, was timbered chiefly with oaks, chestnut, yellow poplar, maples, hickories, beech and other hardwoods. Stretching on and on in silent grandeur, this was the greatest and finest hardwood belt that ever stood. The rich bottomlands were covered with sycamore, walnut and butternut, elm, ash, gum, soft maple, cottonwood and willows -- many of them of enormous size. West of the Mississippi, the hardwood forests covered eastern Iowa and extended southwest through Missouri and Arkansas to eastern Oklahoma and Texas. It was a paradise for wildlife and the Indian who took only what he needed for food and clothing.

The billions of wild pigeons fed on mast. One flock, which roosted in Kentucky and fed in the beech forests of Indiana, was estimated to number more than two billion birds. Feeding on the ground, a flock would extend over a wide front in a series of ranks, with one rear rank and then another continually rising in the air and dropping down ahead so that, as the flock surged rapidly forward with a rolling motion, the ground was swept bare of pigeon food. The range of the wild turkeys, that once were distributed over the eastern half of the United States, was determined by the availability of mast for winter food. Bear, deer, raccoon, foxes, and other animals besides the squirrels, fed on mast. The cougar, bobcat and wolf preyed on animals that grew fat on mast. Wood duck, grouse, many songbirds, and now pheasant, depend considerably on mast in autumn and early winter.

The pioneer settlers were equally dependent on mast as food for their hogs and cattle, as well as for some of their own food. The little clearings where they planted corn, flax, wheat, sorghum and vegetables between the deadened trees and stumps, were surrounded with rail fences to keep the animals out. In Indiana, for instance, laws requiring that livestock be fenced in were not enacted until long after the Civil War. Hogs grew fat on acorns, beechnuts and chestnuts. Large droves were commonly rounded up in autumn and slowly driven long distances to market, feeding on mast as they went.

Then people got fat on hog meat.

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