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Jefferson County Conservation Board, Fairfield, Iowa

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Below are selected articles from previous Naturally Speaking magazines.

Edited by Therese Cummiskey, Naturalist for JCCB

"Fun Facts About Oaks and Acorns", Autumn 2005

"Test Your Knowledge of Nature", Summer 2004

"Trails and Railroads", Autumn 2003


Fun Facts About Oaks and Acorns

burr oak leaf

The oak was designated as the official state tree of Iowa in 1961. The General Assembly chose the oak because it is abundant in the state and serves as shelter, food and nesting cover for many animals and birds.

The Latin name for the oak tree genus, Quercus, means "beautiful tree".

There are 58 species of oaks found in the U.S. with twelve being native to Iowa: black oak, blackjack oak, bur oak, chinkapin oak, dwarf chinkapin, northern pin oak, pin oak, post oak, red oak (below), shingle oak, swamp white oak, white oak (above).

red oak leaf

North American oaks are divided into two groups: white oaks, which have leaves with rounded lobes, and red oaks with pointed, bristle-tipped lobes. The acorns of white oaks mature in one growing season; the acorns of red oaks take two years.

The black oak is, confusingly, in the red oak family. It is also referred to as the yellow-bark oak and was used in colonial days as a dyestuff. The inner bark of the black oak is bright orange-yellow, and can be used fresh or dried and powdered, to produce yellow dyed woolens, cottons, and linens.

blue jay

The acorn crop in an oak forest can reach 700 pounds per acre in a good mast year. Yet by the end of November, most of them will be gone. Acorns are a significant food item for some 150 species of birds and mammals and typically make up at least 25 percent of the diets of black bears, raccoons, gray and fox squirrels, wild turkeys, deer, and white-footed mice. In some cases - notably for tree squirrels, woodland mice, and blue jays - having an ample store of acorns can be critical to over-winter survival.

Fox and gray squirrels neither hibernate nor store a lot of body fat; the extra weight would be a handicap when climbing trees. So they scatter-hoard thousands of acorns, burying them one at a time. These tree squirrels rely on memory and the nuts' odor to recover their bounty in time of need - even from under a foot of snow. And when the crop is modest nearly all of the cached acorns will be eaten by spring, but after peak acorn yields, when as much as 75 percent of the reserves are left, oak seedlings will sprout up.

The blackjack oak is perhaps the oddest of the red oaks, with bizarre splayed leaves shaped like duck feet.

The post oak is named for its colonial function of producing fence posts. Maltese-cross-shaped leaves distinguish it.

post oak

Mark Twain wrote "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County" under an oak in Tuolumne County, California.

Tannin is the compound that makes acorns taste bitter. Repeated boiling, however, will leach out this soluble acid, leaving a tasty nut rich in protein and fat (red oaks acorns contain three times more fat than white). Native Americans ground these treated acorns into a meal from which they made bread. The Chippewa mixed precise portions of the powdered inner barks of red oak, quaking aspen, and balsam poplar, plus the ground root of Seneca snakeroot, for a powerful heart medicine. In some tribes the inner bark was collected in spring, when the tannin concentration (up to eleven percent) is highest, for boiled astringent and antiseptic decoctions useful in controlling dysentery and applying to skin abrasions and hemorrhoids.

Andrew Jackson camped under an oak on his way to the Battle of Horseshoe Bend; George Armstrong Custer camped under an oak en route to the Little Big Horn; Davy Crockett camped under an oak en route to the Alamo.

During the Civil war, acorns served many a family as a substitute for flour and, when roasted with chicory, for coffee.

white oak acorn

Red-oak acorns don't sprout until the following spring, even when buried. As a result, they're storable. Birds and animals rely primarily on red-oak acorns for their winter stash. White-oak acorns, on the other hand, mature in a single year, are sweeter than the reds, and sprout soon after falling, thus losing their nutrients. Wildlife generally eats them as soon as they find them in the fall. The white-oak acorns are critical for building energy reserves before cold weather strikes.

Cork comes from the cork oak, a native of the Mediterranean region. The cork develops in continuous layers around the tree trunk. Eventually these layers may reach eight inches or more in thickness. By the time a cork oak is about twenty-five years old, enough cork has built up to permit stripping without damage to the tree.

burr oak acorn

Acorns range in size from a half-inch to 2-1/2 inches in length. The bur oak bears the biggest acorn of any American oak. The fringe of bristles around the cup of the bur oak acorn is where the tree gets its name. This oak was a common savanna tree in pre-pioneer forests.

White oaks may live five hundred to six hundred years or older. Old trees often show gnarled, twisted limbs.

Red oak is the fastest growing of all oaks. Its common name describes the autumn foliage color, often deep wine-red or orange. Members of the red oak group often hybridize, producing trees with variably shaped leaves and acorns, which defy easy identification.

pin oak leaf

The pin oak is named for its notoriously tough branches, once used to pin barn beams.

Leaves of oak trees may remain attached into winter. A dry oak leaf may consist of up to sixty percent tannins.

Like tree squirrels, blue jays store acorns, hammering thousands of acorns into the ground and then retrieving them as needed during wintertime. Often the acorns are planted in the ideal spot for growing an oak seedling. Carter Johnson and Curtis Adkisson, in their article, Airlifting the Oaks, documented the oak planting abilities of fifty blue jays that transported and cached 150,000 acorns in 28 days, about 110 acorns per day for each bird.

Oak bark is useful for curing (tanning) leather.

A bur oak near Council Grove, Kansas, served for years as a post office drop on the wagon train trail. For a decade or so it was the only known letter cache between Junction City, Kansas, and Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Acorn woodpeckers, which range throughout much of the West Coast and Southwest, live in family groups as large as sixteen birds. In autumn they stockpile acorns in communal granaries, drilling holes into trees and tightly stashing acorns for winter; the acorns are so snug that even squirrels can't pry them out. A granary tree may hold as many 50,000 holes.

In 2002, the Wye Oak on the Eastern Shore of Maryland was blown over by high winds. Over 500 years old this white oak predated European settlement. The most recent measurements placed the Wye Oak at over 31 feet around and 96 feet tall. Its canopy spread nearly half an acre.

The wood of shingle oak is extremely durable and was used in pioneer days for split shingles.

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Test Your Knowledge of Nature


Nature Quiz Show is a game often played at the park on days when bad weather forces a visiting school group indoors. During the game, participants are challenged with a series of questions about the sights and sounds of nature. Here's a sampling of 15 questions. How many can you get correct? Answers are listed below. NO PEEKING

Nature Quiz Show

  • 1. Name the seven species of woodpeckers found in Iowa.
  • 2. Name the three flashing colors of fireflies.
  • 3. True or False? Rabbits digest their food twice
  • 4. True or False? Frogs shed their skin.
  • 5. What weather related information can you get from the chirping of a cricket?
  • 6. Where are a cricket's eardrums located?
  • 7. What makes up 60 - 90% of the bald eagle's diet?
  • 8. True or False. A turtle can crawl out of its shell.
  • 9. True or False. North American rabbits dig holes to live in.
  • 10. What is Iowa's fastest snake and what is its top speed?
  • 11. True or False. Frogs have teeth.
  • 12. What member of the dog family can readily climb a tree?
  • 13. What is the largest snake species in Iowa?
  • 14. What are the three most common, permanent resident owls in Iowa?
  • 15. What is the only mammal in North America that uses venomous saliva to subdue larger prey?

1-Downy, hairy, red-bellied, red-headed, yellow bellied sapsucker, northern flicker, and pileated.
2. Green, yellow and orange.
3. True. Food goes into the stomach, is partially digested, and is defecated as a soft, jelly-like pellet. The rabbit then eats this pellet, digests it, and defecates again. The second type of pellet is the harder pellet we often see on the ground.
4. True. A frog's skin is shed as the animal outgrows it. Usually, the frog eats the cast off skin.
5. Temperature. Count the number of cricket chirps in a fifteen-second period and add 38. The resulting number is remarkably close to the temperature in Fahrenheit.
6. On their knees (on the front legs.)
7. Fish. Fun fact: Eagles have a special locking mechanism for their talons. When the open talons hit their prey, they instantly close and cannot be opened again until the eagle pushes down on a solid surface.
8. False. A turtle's shell is attached to the rest of its body by the backbone.
9. False. Our rabbits do not dig holes to live in like European rabbits do. Rabbits here make forms - shallow depressions in the ground, usually under a dense thicket - and line them with fur and soft grass when having their young.
10. The blue racer. Despite its name, its top speed is about 4 miles per hour.
11. True. Most frogs have tiny teeth on their upper jaws, which are used ONLY to hold prey, not to chew it. Toads are toothless.
12. The gray fox. Gray fox will climb trees to seek refuge or to search for roosting birds.
13. The bull snake. The record length is over eight feet.
14. Screech, great horned, and barred owls.
15. The short-tailed shrew. Shrews are the smallest and most common mammals in North America. Of the four species found in Iowa, the short-tailed shrew is the largest (at 4 to 5 inches in length) and has poisonous saliva. Delivered with a bite, the toxin slows down or kills prey, and can cause soreness and swelling in humans.

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Trails and Railroads - Autumn 2003 Issue


By Ron Meyers, Park and Trail Technician

Did you know that some of the trails in Jefferson County Park and on the Jefferson County Trail System are over one hundred years old?

It's true. Sort of, anyway. Approximately 5.5 miles of the trails are on the grades of old relocated or abandoned railroad rights-of-way.

These old railroads make excellent recreational trails, also referred to as "linear parks".

Railroads, at least in part, were built to serve the public, and provide transportation and link communities. As trails, they are continuing to meet those goals.

All three entrances to Jefferson County Park are on old railroad right-of-ways. The main entrance off of Libertyville Road and the trail straight north of it to the Erma Hartman Memorial Trail are part of the Chicago & South Western Railroad built in the 1800's. It later became the Chicago Rock Island and Pacific Railroad. In the 1940's this railroad was relocated between Libertyville and Fairfield. The CRI&P RR went bankrupt in the 1970's and was abandoned by 1980.

This relocated railroad right-of-way make up the northwest entrance to the park, called North Access Trail, from 32nd street to the park. The northeast entrance to the park is the Erma Hartman Memorial Trail which runs from Jackson Street, through Oakwood Nursery to the park. Most of this trial is also on the old CRI&P RR.

Other sections of the trail system using the CRI&P RR right-of-way include the Cedar View Trail from 32nd street 1.5 miles west to 223rd street. Also, 1.3 miles of the Loop Trail through the MUM Campus, from North B Street to the County Engineer's shop on 8th and Gear, is on this railroad right-of-way.

In addition there is a small section of trail in Whitham Woods and Chautauqua Park that are part of the first railroad that went through Fairfield. This was a single track railroad built in 1858 by the Burlington & Missouri Railroad. Parts of this railroad were later relocated and the entire system was made into a double track railroad. It became the Chicago Burlington and Quincy Railroad, then the Burlington Northern Railroad. Today, still serving Fairfield and Jefferson County, we know it as the Burlington Northern-Sante Fe Railroad.

Well, that's the history lesson for this time. Next time you're out on the North Access Trail or the Cedar View Trail take a look at the cuts and fills that were required to create this nice level rail and now trail. It's pretty awesome, and easy to see now that the leaves are off the trees.

Pictures: We would love to be able to get reproductions of pictures of the old CRI&P RR, especially any with trains in them or of the old Cedar Creek Wood Truss Bridge. If you have any we might be able to use please call us at 472-4421.

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Mission Statement
Our mission is to enhance the quality of life in Jefferson County by acquiring, developing and managing public areas so that its citizens will have opportunities for quality outdoor recreation experiences, and to cultivate good land stewardship through natural history and environmental education activities.

Jefferson County Conservation Board, 2003 Libertyville Road, Fairfield, IA 52556
Call: 641-472-4421    Fax: 641-472-7911   E-mail: jeffersonccb@lisco.com
Updated 12-23-16


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