10/21/2011 03:59 pm ET | Updated Dec 21, 2011

Acorn Shortage 2011: Will Squirrels Starve This Winter?

WASHINGTON -- Is there an acorn shortage this year? According to The Washington Post, maybe.

In some parts of the area, squirrel lovers say they have noticed fewer acorns this year, though not quite on the scale of the Great Acorn Drought of '08.

But on the other hand:

Frank Howard of the Second Chance Wildlife Rehabilitation Center in Gaithersburg said he and other rehabilitators haven't noticed a shortage of acorns this year.

"The general consensus seems to be that the acorns on the ground seem to be about average, and there seems to be a bumper crop of black walnuts, potentially making up for any perceived shortage of acorns," he said.

Note that other articles from around the Internet have more decisively found a less-than-spectacular crop of acorns this year, and describe the bad effects these shortages could have on deer and bears on top of squirrels. One of these bad effects is that the hungry animals will come closer to humans -- expect more car accidents and bears in suburban backyards.

So assuming there is an acorn shortage, should we feed squirrels if they seem hungry? Again, we've got a resounding maybe.

Laura Simon, the urban wildlife director for the Humane Society of the United States, says no.

"Your heart goes out to these animals. At the same time it's really not a good idea to supplementarily feed them," she said. "We don't even know what freezing does to acorns. It's just better to let them adapt to the natural conditions, then to reverse them by provisioning them."

And whatever you do, don't hand feed them or else they become dependent on you and might become a little aggressive.

Miriam Stein, a wildlife rehabilitator, posted a message on Cleveland Park's online message board recommending otherwise:

If you appreciate our furry friends, consider purchasing acorns online and freezing them so you can help backyard squirrels through winter...[A] word of caution, however. Leave the food out and do not habituate them to being hand-fed.

The Huffington Post spoke with Stein, who said she wanted to be clear that some wildlife experts would disagree with her recommendation to feed hungry squirrels. But, she said, her suggestion stems not only from an aversion to letting the animals suffer. It's also an effort to improve squirrel-human relations.

Noting that some of her Cleveland Park neighbors don't appreciate squirrels -- or "tree rats," as they're unaffectionately known -- digging up bulbs and other treasures from the yard, Stein suggested that "giving them an alternative" would not be the worst idea.

Wild Birds Forever takes a similar tack, offering up a selection of squirrel feeders designed to keep squirrels away from the parts of a yard where they're less welcome. ("Diversion feeding," as this feeding tactic is called, apparently also works with bears.)

What to put in the squirrel feeders? Stein suggested putting out acorns, if you can find them, or any nut with a hard shell -- hazelnuts, peanuts, walnuts. She said that she recommends buying acorns from the online store Acorno, and other nuts from the store Nuts Online, which, Stein said, also has a nice selection of for-humans-only gummy bears.

Photo by Flickr user Mr. T in DC/Flickr.