Ranger Steve’s Nature Niche: Helicopters

| Blog, Ranger Steve's Nature Niche


by Ranger Steve Mueller

Flying about our yards are tens of thousands of silent helicopters. Our grandson, Walden, was visiting as we walked among the whirling maple seed samaras. Karen said we used to call them “helicopters”. I jokingly asked, what do you call them now? Most of us have experienced the winged seeds referred to as “helicopters.”

Walden’s dad caught one and released it to fly. They were being shed from silver maple trees. It was breezy that day, which was a week prior to the official start of summer. As families head north for the long weekend that commences summer, maple trees release seed-bearing samaras later than they do locally.

The progression of seasons varies with latitude. In mid-May the warbler migration is at its peak in mid-Michigan. The warblers are in full breeding plumage working their way to northern biomes and suitable nesting territory. Frosty nights with warm days awaken insect populations that furnish birds with needed food for their energy consuming journey.

Different bird groups have varying travel schedules. Common Loons reach lakes as soon as ice-out occurs. Many waterfowl are incubating eggs by the end of April. I received calls about baby ducks that were separated from their parent at the same time warblers were passing on their way north.

Similar to bird schedules, maple flowers produce seeds at different times. The silver and red maples flower when snow is still likely and warm days allow insect pollination. Their flowers mature well before leaf emergence. Wind and insects move freely among bare branches facilitating pollination. By the time leaves expand, winged fruits are nearing readiness for dispersal.

Sugar maple flowers delay development until leaves open. Their seeds are not mature until fall. The silver, red, and sugar maple seeds germinate in spring. The red and silver maple seed sprouts are from the current year’s seed production. Sprouting sugar maple seeds are the previous year’s seed development.

An advantage of seeds germinating soon after reaching the ground is they are less likely to be eaten by the many birds and small mammals that depend on them. Sugar maple seeds linger through the winter with greater opportunity of being eaten by birds, mammals, insects, and fungus. Maples produce millions of seeds and it helps the odds of two offspring surviving to maturity to reproduce.

It is amazing to realize that during a tree’s lifetime if only two offspring survive to reproduce, a stable population will be maintained. Foresters are documenting a slow population decline of sugar maples across eastern North America. Causes of decline affecting their nature niche are multiple.

An evolved survival strategy is for the trees to produce massive seeds every few years that overwhelm consumers and allow greater chance for some individuals to live. During lean seed production years, trees store energy that is essential for massive seed production years.

Watch the numerous samara helicopters flying through the air to notice the large plump seed with a thin flat propelling wing. Two seeds are attached together. Each has a wing that helps it fly distant from the parent. Some seeds hold together when ripped by wind from the tree and some break apart. Relax and watch with family members as helicopters twirl through the air in tandem or fly solo. Challenge family members to determine which seeds are carried farthest. Is it the two connected seeds or the solo fliers?

We used to put the winged portion of the samara in our mouth between tongue and mouth roof and then blow to create a whistle. It was a challenge to see who could make the loudest whistle. I am approaching old age and reflect on those youthful days with joy. Perhaps I should quit writing to retrieve to a samara and see if I can still make a loud whistle. The vibrating wing tickles the inside of my mouth.

Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at [email protected] – Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary, 13010 Northland Dr. Cedar Springs, MI 49319 or call 616-696-1753.

Top left: Red maple Acer rubrum seeds, photo by Wendy VanDyk Evans, Bugwood.org
Top right: Sugar maple Acer saccharum seeds, Steve Hurst @ USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database – USDA