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
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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Update: June 2012