Beneficial animals

Fall Leaves Stay on the Ground, but What About Conifer Cones?

Just like the autumn leaves, don’t touch them: they’re a precious and very important source of food for a cute companion in the garden: the red squirrel.

Fortunately for you, the two are very similar, both in lifestyle and diet. So for today’s article, I’ll just refer to both rodents as red squirrels.

By the way, I don’t know about you, but between the hairy ears of the Europeans (we’re still talking about squirrels here!), and the white eyebrows of the Americans (squirrels, still!), I can’t decide which one is more adorable… What do you think?

This cute little mammal usually lives in evergreen forests, where it feeds on mushrooms, pine nuts, walnuts, or other trees. They can sometimes be seen in cities, suburbs or in the country, wandering on our land. They aren’t harmful to our garden, and watching them is a real pleasure since they aren’t shy, they’re active during the day, and their antics worthy of the best trapeze artist.

Collection of Cones, Seeds, and Dried Chanterelle

American red squirrel eating seeds
Wondering why your bird feeder was always empty? I may have identified the culprit! Photo: raymie.

While the European species can find food all year-round or almost all year-round, its Canadian cousin faces a serious threat: at 40 below in winter, mushroom hunting is out of the question!

I heard your shriek, my dear European friends. Yes, even if it’s not so cold every day, it happens that a week or two of extreme cold falls upon our continent! And then, just like us, who continue to go to work and do our shopping, the red squirrel must adapt. As there are no mittens or coats for squirrels, they have found another strategy to feed themselves in winter: stock up on food.

That’s exactly what those piles of cones on the ground are: they’re a larder for the winter. Squirrels spend the fall gathering food and making a pile at the base of their tree. Then, all they have to do is go down into the snow, dig a single hole, and they have access to all their food. How clever is that?

Red squirrel digging in the snow
Of course, you have to dig after every storm… Photo: lunatasp1s.

Two Winter Storage Strategies

American Grey Squirrel
American gray squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis). Photo: jones73napls.

A cousin of the red squirrel, the grey squirrel, has a completely different strategy. Instead of putting all its eggs in one basket, it has several hiding places in order to foil possible thieves. Some have even been observed pretending to hide an acorn, before going to hide it elsewhere!

American grey squirrel turning on a bird feeder

Bigger than his red cousin, more present, and a little less liked, let’s just say that he doesn’t mind raiding garbage cans… or anything else!

Does this mean that red squirrels don’t steal? No, it doesn’t! In fact, they’re happily robbing their neighbors… who in turn rob them! Studies have shown that these little rascals steal as much as they are stolen from… returning to a status quo where everyone has more or less the same amount of food.

What to Do With All These Cones?

Well, just like fall leaves, leave them there! In the spring, you’ll even have the chance to see the pile of cones transformed into cone hearts without scales. This is a sign that your squirrels have eaten well this winter! If you want to, pick up those leftovers, but personally, I leave them there and they decompose, a good compost for the tree that hosts my squirrels!

Photos of cones and a puppy
I went digging through my own pile of cone and here’s what I found: old cone hearts from last year, newer cone, and some already half eaten! I (under the supervision of my co-dependent baby dog) took a seed out of one of the casseroles to show you what the animals eat: no, it’s not the scales themselves that interest them! Photo: Audrey Martel.

The Role of the Red Squirrel

Although it isn’t really interested in your garden or flowerbeds, it has an essential role in nature. Moreover, the European species has been protected since the 1980s.

Nuts, which are actually tree seeds, are sometimes forgotten and germinate in their hiding place. Also, by feeding on mushrooms, the squirrel spreads its spores, which allows them to disperse. Having a very good sense of smell, this mammal can even find underground mushrooms such as truffles, for which the intervention of an animal is essential for its reproduction!

Chanterelle in a tree
If you are a mushroom hunting enthusiast, you may have come across this. No, this chanterelle does not grow in the tree; it was left there by a squirrel to dry and preserve itself longer. Photo: Daniel Thiboutot.

In other words, the red squirrel is a gardener too!

Audrey Martel is a biologist who graduated from the University of Montreal. After more than ten years in the field of scientific animation, notably for Parks Canada and the Granby Zoo, she joined Nature Conservancy of Canada to take up new challenges in scientific writing. She then moved into marketing and joined Leo Studio. Full of life and always up for a giggle, or the discovery of a new edible plant, she never abandoned her love for nature and writes articles for both Nature sauvage and the Laidback Gardener.

6 comments on “Fall Leaves Stay on the Ground, but What About Conifer Cones?

  1. Christine Lemieux

    Maybe it is different for everyone. Larry once wrote about squirrels learning behaviours such as digging up bulbs. Mine Leave everything alone in my rural garden, except for a few strawberries here and there, likely because they constantly raid my bird feeders! They never figured out how to get in our feeders until one of 3 babies did, last year. They are very territorial, so we never have too many at a time, so the birds still seem to get lots of seeds, so all is well. Now those adorable chipmunks….why do they always dig out their den at the base of a lovely shrub?!

  2. Jt Michaels

    lol… gotta agree about red squirrels (we call ’em Pine Squirrels in my neck of the woods) being destructive little rascals, adorable as they are. They eat my Geraniums, Sweet Potatoes, Ripe Tomatoes and more – not to mention the holes they chew in my old, woodsided farmhouse. My husband would shoot them but since he’s gone, I only protect the plants, the bird feeders and fill in the holes on the siding. Seems the population will keep itself stable without extra food.

  3. I will second Dianne and disagree with the author that squirrels are cute (but that’s personal) and that they’re a garden companion (now, that’s actually objective). In the cottage country the squirrel population is healthy (i.e small) while in the city where some of my neighbors that buy expensive Italian hazelnuts to feed the nasty pests and make their population explode, the squirrels (in addition to getting into ppl’s attics, vents, etc) destroy flower beds and pots by digging and throwing out flowers and plants, they snip off fruits and flowers they never eat anyway (immature lemons, green tomatos, finger long eggplants, small peppers), they dig out nearly all crocuses and tulips. And destroy the lawn. So I’m sorry, they ARE very destructive to the garden. One year I had an eggplant plant in a pot that was dug out and thrown out of its pot 5 times (like actually FIVE times). And it was a fairly large plant. And when the poor thing finally got a little fruit, a squirrel bit it off and of course didn’t eat, just left it on the ground. Same goes for immature lemons and tomatoes, as well as flowerheads. None of this gets eaten by squirrels (if they’d eat it, I think I’d feel a bit better about this whole thing), they are just stupid and never learn that even red tomatos are not their favorite food.
    Don’t even get me started that these pests never let us enjoy apricots from our tree. They do eat them. But at a green stage, by peeling off the green pulp, throwing it out and going for the seed. If we get to pick two apricots a season we consider ourselves lucky.

  4. Jan Bushfield

    Red squirrels are undoubtedly among the serious contenders for cutest wildlife likely to inhabit your garden. But they can be incredibly destructive…they will eat your house if you ignore them. We spend summers next door to a cottage whose owners have been unsuccessful in eradicating them for many years. When they block the hole the hole in the roof that grants them access they simply chew another. A portion of ceiling covered with acoustic tiles collapsed from the weight of the stored cones and walnuts and acorns. So enjoy their cuteness and their antics, but keep an eye on their extra-curricular activities.

  5. Red Squirrels prefer to put the cones in your attic or behind the walls in your house. They chase the birds away. Chase the grey and black squirrels. Plus they are constantly chasing each other and even try to get rid of the gardener by looking down on you and chirping. Like I am going to stop gardening because they don’t want me there. They try to steal seeds from the bird feeder but it is set to close when they try. Of all the wildlife in the garden, the red squirrel is a menace and a pest. All others (except raccoons) are welcome to enjoy the garden. Not the red squirrel.

  6. claire sullivan

    lovely.

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