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Bumper Cone Crop Year

11-17-17 spruce cones 049A7815

There is no denying that this year’s cone crop is a bumper crop. Just look up at the tops of conifers or down on the ground beneath them and you will see a plethora of cones. This may be the best overall cone crop in five years, and the best spruce cone crop in more than a decade in the Northeast.

Conifers produce cone crops erratically; some years are bountiful, and others are minimal. Part of the reason for this may be that in a year with a bumper crop (mast), predators can’t possibly consume all of the seeds produced, and thus the opportunity for conifers to have their seeds dispersed and germinate is markedly improved. In addition, erratic production may have partially evolved as a strategy to combat insect damage. An unpredictable cycle makes it much more difficult for insects to become a pest.

As to why some years are so productive, weather conditions are certainly influential. Often times people look at the most recent summer’s weather as a forecaster of the coming fall’s hard mast crop (nuts, cones). Although most conifer cones develop in six to eight months, not all do. Most conifers in the family Pinaceae take this amount of time, but cedar cones take a year to mature, and most spruce and pine cones mature in two to three years. Thus, the cone crop we are having this year may in part be a reflection on this year’s weather, but, depending on the species, it could have been influenced by last summer’s weather conditions or even the summer before last.

Regardless of why some years are lean and some plentiful, when we have a bumper cone crop such as this fall’s, the impact is felt far and wide by wildlife. Red squirrels, voles, waxwings, chickadees, nuthatches, grosbeaks, crossbills and siskins reap the benefits. Their resulting reproduction rates soar, and the ripple effect continues to be felt throughout the food chain.

In some circumstances, the ramifications of a bumper crop are evident before the crop even matures. It appears that red squirrels can predict when there is going to be a huge spruce cone year and produce a second litter to take advantage of the large food supply when it matures. It may be that when the squirrels eat the buds of a spruce tree the summer before cones develop (spruce cones take two years to mature — cone buds are produced in the first year and cones develop and mature in the second year) they can discern which buds are going to produce cones and which are destined to produce branches. An abundance of cone buds may be the clue that triggers their extended reproductive activity. (Photo: Red Spruce cones)


15 responses

  1. Alice Pratt

    Again, so interesting! I love the little Hemlock cones.

    November 20, 2017 at 8:47 am

  2. Pat

    I have certainly noticed the uptick in pinecones. During one windstorm, I felt like the house was being bombarded by missiles, and I can scarcely walk to the mailbox without stepping on a cone.

    November 20, 2017 at 8:51 am


    Mega cone production equals few song birds at sunflower feeder—still at almost Thanksgiving 2017?

    November 20, 2017 at 9:37 am

  4. Sarah Cooper-Ellis

    I can’t help loving the gorgeous stand of silky Knights’-Plume moss, Ptilium crista-castrensis, upon which the cones are lying.

    November 20, 2017 at 10:45 am

  5. Harte Crow

    Isn’t it likely that the heavy rain this spring influenced that unusually abundant crop of acorns and pine cones?

    November 20, 2017 at 11:40 am

    • None of the foresters I consulted made that conclusion, but it’s possible that it had something to do with it.

      November 20, 2017 at 2:25 pm

  6. Bill On The Hill...

    A fascinating story for sure Mary… One only has too look up & see the massive amount of pine cones in the tops this season…
    The very recent wind storm experienced up close & personal by many here in VT. & NH & southern NE can attest to the many softwood species blowing over & spreading those small pine cones all over creation…
    I had a 60ft. + spruce blow over backwards, pulling the cables to the ground & staying that way for 5 straight days leaving a carpet of pine cones on the ground… ( plus no power )… 😦
    Bill Farr… 🙂

    November 20, 2017 at 12:51 pm

  7. Kathie Fiveash

    Those red squirrels are mighty clever beasties. Gotta love ’em.

    November 20, 2017 at 2:25 pm

  8. Barry Avery

    Here in CT it is a bumper crop of acorns too.

    November 21, 2017 at 9:24 am

  9. Kathryn

    We have several very large white pines near our house. After the windstorm, the ground was so littered with cones that you could see very little lawn! We have picked up buckets of them for fire starters but is there something better we can do with them that would benefit the wildlife?

    November 21, 2017 at 9:54 am

    • If you don’t want them on your lawn, you can just wheelbarrow them into the woods and dump them. The squirrels will be thrilled!

      November 21, 2017 at 11:23 am

  10. Pingback: Snowy spruce – John Hadden Photography

  11. Pingback: Wednesday, November 22, 2017 | East Street Weather Blog

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