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)