Wildlife in the Alps – Who’s been nibbling on that cone? 

Nibbled cone

Tiny Feeders

Have you ever noticed the large amounts of half-eaten cones in coniferous alpine forests? It’s one of the most common feeding signs you find in our forests, because the seeds in conifer cones are an important food source for many species of wildlife. The seeds aren’t easy to reach, because they are well-hidden inside the cones. This forces animals to utilize a whole range of skills to get to them. While working on the cones, they leave behind interesting traces and during my hikes through our coniferous forests, I love imagining who’s been nibbling on those cones.

Pine cone food
Who’s been nibbling on this cone?  Read more to find out. Photos by Simone van Velzen.

Small mammals

Small furry critters like squirrels (Sciurus vulgaris), bank voles (Myodes glareolus) and wood mice (Apodemus sylvaticus) eat the seeds in cones and leave characteristic cores and piles of stripped scales under conifer trees. The enormous amount of devoured remains I find next to the path are clear evidence that many small mammals live in our forests.

Red squirrels

Many half-eaten cones I find along the trail are left behind by red squirrels. They chew of the scales of a cone in the same way as we would eat corn-on-the-cob. They generally do an untidy job of ripping off the scales, which makes it easy to tell apart cones stripped by squirrels or those stripped by other small mammals.

Red squirrels don’t only leave behind the mess we hikers find underneath conifer trees, but they also collect and store spruce and pine cones as winter food.

pine cones for food
This is a common sight on the forest floor in coniferous forests in the Alps. Characteristic cores and piles of stripped scales have been left behind by a small mammal.

A wide range of birds

Mammals aren’t the only ones that are fond of cone seeds. Birds, such as red crossbills (Loxia curvirostra) and several species of woodpeckers, also strip cones for their seeds.

Cone seeds are also an important food source for many other forest birds, like spotted nutcrackers (Nucifraga caryocatactes), Eurasian nuthatches (Sitta europaea) and several species of chickadees.

Red crossbills

Crossbills have a specially adapted beak to handle cones to get to the well-hidden seeds. The tips of the lower and upper bill cross over each other (hence its name). When this bird sticks its special beak into a cone it can pry the scales apart by opening its beak. This way the bird can reach the seeds with its tongue.

Great spotted woodpecker 

Great spotted woodpeckers (Dendrocopos major) have another way of reaching the hidden seeds inside a cone. Sometimes these birds jam a cone into a crevice in rough bark to make the cone easier to handle to extract the seeds. Some individuals use a favourite tree for this technique and stacks of worked cones accumulate beneath the “workshop”.

Spotted woodpecker pine cone
A spruce cone awkwardly stuck in the bark of a tree. It’s the handiwork of a great spotted woodpecker. The bird lodges cones in a crack in tree bark so it can hammer it open to find the seeds inside. The seeds housed in conifer cones, such as Norway spruces and pines, are an important food source for these birds.

Where to look for these feeding signs

Whenever you’re hiking in coniferous forests in the Alps simply keep your eyes on the forest floor and you’ll be sure to find cone cores and piles of stripped scales. These feeding signs made by small mammals and birds are practically everywhere. Also keep an eye out for a cone awkwardly stuck in tree bark: you might be lucky enough to find a workshop of a great spotted woodpecker. ?  

Simone van Velzen

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