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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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. ?