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Earth Notes - Gambel Oak

Flagstaff, AZ – Earth Notes: Gambel Oak

In the 1840s, a young ornithologist named William Gambel traveled to the Southwest with noted naturalist Thomas Nuttall. Sadly, Gambel's promising career ended early; he died of typhoid fever in 1849. But his memory lives on in a tree that bears his name.

A common species, Gambel oak covers nine million acres across the West. On the Colorado Plateau, this deciduous oak forms the green understory in the ponderosa pine forest. It's also found in canyons like namesake Oak Creek.

In late summer and early fall, Gambel oak produces half- to three-quarter-inch acorns. Groups of acorn woodpeckers aren't far behind. These clownish, black, white, and red-faced birds go for the acorns with gusto, all the while laughing their raucous calls.

The woodpeckers shuttle the nuts to another tree, often a pine, and store each one in a custom-made cavity. Throughout the winter, they return to these granary trees to retrieve their rich stash.

Jays, wild turkeys, squirrels, and black bears also gobble up this hard "mast," as acorns are known. The tree's leaves form important browse for deer and elk. They're food, too, for insects such as leafrollers and caterpillars of the Colorado hairstreak butterfly. Besides serving as a grocery store, Gambel oak is also a living space for warblers, owls, grosbeaks, and bats.

Gambel oak grows slowly and doesn't reach great height a 20-footer is a tall one. Not so mighty in size, it leaves a big mark.

-Rose Houk