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Bumper Cone Crop, Bonanza for Birds

By James Reddoch

Eastern white pines are loaded with cones this year. They have been dripping sap for a couple of months as they ripened. Now daily, as the sun warms them up, the cones open and seeds come pinwheeling down in volumes that are hard to ignore.

It is amazing to think that contained in these tiny seeds are the blueprints for a tree that, at maturity, can grow to 100 feet tall, weigh multiple tons above ground and even more if you include the underground root system. A single pine tree provides vital habitat for countless insects, lichens, fungi, and animals. In a year when seeding occurs en masse, like the one we are having now, it is a bonanza for all.* Watching this unfold has revealed some interesting observations.

First, if you are experiencing the same bumper seed crop we are in western Maine, chances are you do not have many visitors to your bird feeders. At my house, the occasional goldfinch stops by and the chipmunk that lives under my porch takes advantage of what I spill on its door step. Otherwise, most of the activity is in the trees. Red breasted nuthatches are tooting away up there, and I can hear them hammering on seeds they have wedged into cracks in the pine’s bark. The black-capped chickadees and pine siskins are there as well. Red squirrels are up there too, cutting cones from the tree, retrieving them from the ground and perching on a stump or rock where they systematically chew off each scale to get at the seeds. This means I’m saving on my seed bill this fall, but I’m having to work a little harder to find some of the most common birds in my yard.

My second observation relates to a finch that normally comes down from northern latitudes in the winter – red crossbills. These are birds that are usually hard to find. As a result, I’ve only seen them occasionally and when I do, it has been for brief glimpses. This year has been different. Crossbills have been around all summer. When I first saw them, I speculated that maybe the fires in Canada had pushed them out of their home range. However, these birds are famous for following seed crops. They range nomadically from Alaska to the Canadian Maritimes in their search. The Finch Research Network’s General Forecast 2023-24, (and yes, there is a group that studies crossbills and forecasts where birders are likely to find them), offered critical clues. This year’s cone crop throughout Canada’s boreal forest has been below average. However, eastern white pines have produced bumper cone crops in places like New England. This is the most likely explanation for why crossbills are in my yard at this time of year.

One final note on the crossbills – they are “opportunistic breeders”. This means they may skip nesting when food is scarce. But in years of abundance, like this one, they may raise two clutches with the second occurring in the fall. True to form, crossbills nested in my yard the last week in September after most other birds had raised their young and disbursed. This is just one additional surprise from this year’s white pine bonanza.

Since this type of cone crop does not happen every year, now is the time to get out and see what is happening where you live. Who knows what surprises might unfold from the tiny seeds quietly pinwheeling down in your yard.

*See Katie Stewart’s article, White Pine – An Iconic Sentinel Tree to learn more about the life of the pines in your yard.

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