Conifer cone harvest season

Time for birds and small mammals to harvest conifer seeds

Conifer cone ready for harvest

Ponderosa pine cone, containing newly ripened seeds. In the coming weeks, the cone scales will open and expose the seeds, each encased in a papery scale to allow the wind to carry the seed away.

Late August means that a new crop of ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa)  seeds  are ripe.  The seeds begin the grow 14 months before they fully mature in mid-August of the next year.  The scales on the cones open in early September to expose the ripe seeds, each encased in a thin papery wing, and the wind carries them away.  Many birds and small mammals harvest these calorie-rich seeds before seed disposal can happen.  In mid-August, I visited the Chelan-Douglas Land Trust’s Mountain Home Preserve in Leavenworth and interrupted two busy rodents working on ponderosa pine cones

Yellow-pine chipmunk using its front paws to extract ripe seeds from a ponderosa pine cone.

Yellow-pine chipmunk using its front paws to extract ripe seeds from a ponderosa pine cone.

A yellow-pine chipmunk (Tamias amoenus) was using its front paws to pull seeds out of a ripe cone in a cluster growing near the very top of the tree.  Chipmunks fill their internal cheek pouches and then transport the seeds to underground caches, to store and  be consumed after rousing from winter hibernation in early spring. Seeds and fruits are the main foods for chipmunks.  They are active in the daytime, so people can often get to see them hard at work.

Douglas tree squirrel

Douglas squirrel harvesting a ponderosa pine cone and carrying it to an underground cache

Also active during the day are our native tree squirrel, the. Douglas squirrel or Chickaree (Tamiasciurus douglasii) whose primary food are conifer seeds.   They use a different strategy for harvesting and storing conifer seeds.  With sharp front teeth they cut a branch holding a still-closed cone, and it drops to the ground.  Tree squirrels then pick up the cut cones and carry it to moist underground storage areas where the large quantities can be stored for up to three years.  As I was walking on the road, I startled a Douglas Squirrel with its mouth around a ponderosa pine cone, causing it to freeze in its tracks.

Douglas tree squirrel

Douglas tree squirrel

I snapped a picture seconds after the squirrel dropped the cone and watched it roll to my feet.  I left, not wanting to interrupt its food-gathering work. As you are in the forest this fall, listen for sound of dropping conifer cones and then turn your eyes upward to see a busy tree squirrel.

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