Have you ever seen a pile of pine cone scales, or bracts, in the woods like this?
How did they get there? Some kid stripping pine cones while bored? A seed collecting machine that was set up there for a while? Sounds crazy, but that last explanation is fairly accurate.
The machine is actually a red squirrel and he isn’t collecting the seeds, he’s eating them. Red squirrels live in conifer forests. These little guys live up to their portrayal in the movie Over the Hedge with their hyperactivity! If you have a conifer stand on your property, you may be able to see them scurrying around at high speed and making a ruckus!
They lose their diet of insects, fruits, mushrooms and even the occasional young bird, chipmunk, rabbit or mouse in the winter time. However, pine, hemlock, and spruce trees produce cones, which in good years, can be very abundant. In the fall, red squirrels cut cones from the trees and stash them in piles (called middens) at the bases of trees, in hollow logs, and underground. If you are in the woods when they are cutting off these cones, watch out! They can land all over with a thud!
Red squirrels cut cones off in the fall, while they are still green, as this keeps the cone from drying out and losing the seeds inside. They may store up to 15,000 of these cones! The seeds inside the cone supply food for the squirrels during the winter months. Red squirrels sit at the stash of cones chewing off the scales like we would eat corn on the cob. At the base of the scales are the seeds. A squirrel may chew scales off 100 cones a day in this “cone on the cob style”!
After a while, the stash may start to look like a dump for the skeletal remains of the cones: the center stalk with the stripped off scales laying around.
These squirrels can smell a stash of cones under up to 12 feet of snow! They may raid another squirrel’s stash at times. A co-worker said she has a squirrel that will put a single cone on a fence rail, or a tree branch, or wedged into a pump handle, and if she takes the cone away, another one will appear there the next day.
So get out in your conifers and see if you can spot one of these little energetic guys and their stash of cones. To learn more about wildlife viewing in your woodlot, take a tour through MyWoodlot.com.