The elegant and essential cones of coniferous trees

Many birds explore the nooks and crannies of these seed-bearing pods as they try to pry the seeds loose or find minute insects

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Geoff CarpentierAs we welcome spring, we see the remnants of pine and spruce cones previously covered by snow. Few of us think about how important these cones are to the floral and faunal communities – as food and to ensure the next generation of trees is born.

Many species of coniferous trees produce cones – pines, firs, hemlocks, spruce, cedars and larches, to name a few. Alders, which are not coniferous trees, still produce fruiting bodies that mimic the cones of coniferous trees in appearance and function. And like many conifers, these are carried on the tree throughout the winter.

Each species of tree carries two types of cones – one male and one female. Each is different structurally. Female cones usually develop singly and form terminally or laterally on the tree’s new growth, while male cones develop in clusters at the base of the new spring growth and are generally inconspicuous. Both male and female cones take two to three years to form. Female cones tend to persist throughout the season and sometimes beyond, while male cones usually disintegrate soon after releasing their pollen.

pine cones
A cone is a woody stem where the male and female reproductive organs of the tree are located. These organs are arranged spirally around this stem to form the cone-shaped cluster

The female cone is essentially an armoured seed protector, but many forms of wildlife have learned how to harvest the shielded seeds for food. Red squirrels are masters at collecting unripe cones. Often one can see and hear them snipping the cones off the trees with their sharp teeth and then racing down the tree to collect them for storage in a winter hiding place called a midden. Often these piles can be found in odd places and can contain hundreds of cones. Left alone, many trees sprout from unattended cone stashes, and this is an important seed dispersal method for trees.

Many birds explore the nooks and crannies of the cones as they try to pry the seeds loose or find minute insects hiding among the scales.

One group of birds, the crossbills, have evolved such that they have curved bills that overlap and are designed to twist the seeds out of the protective scales on the cones. Since crossbills are totally reliant on cones for survival, and as many trees don’t produce cones every year, these finches have a nomadic life, wandering the continent searching for good cone crops. Once they find them, they stay and feed, sometimes for months, nesting wherever they find food.

black spruce pine cones
Each species of tree carries two types of cones – one male and one female. Each is different structurally

This nesting behaviour is unique as most birds have a home range where they will nest and then look for food for themselves and their young. Crossbills (and many other finches that feed on cones) simply keep moving until they find food and then stop to nest.

How these birds find these important stands of cone-bearing trees and how they communicate this information to others of their species in the vastness of Canada is a mystery that likely will never be solved.

Oh yeah – when dry, cones make great fire starters for your campfire. But be cautious indoors as they often have a lot of sap in them that can gum up your chimney.

So as you enjoy this spring season, take a look at the trees around you, and maybe you’ll see a crossbill prying seeds off a cone.

Geoff Carpentier is a published author, expedition guide and environmental consultant. Visit Geoff online at, on LinkedIn and Facebook.

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Geoff Carpentier

Geoff Carpentier

Geoff’s interest in nature started when he was 13 when he used to wander through the woods near his home in northern Ontario, learning about nature firsthand. Educated at the University of Guelph, he studied zoology and biological sciences. For more than 33 years, he held various senior positions with the Ontario Ministry of the Environment. In his spare time, he taught about nature and pesticides at community colleges, led trips for various companies or organizations, authored a book on mammals, is widely published in various nature magazines and books, wrote regular nature columns for local newspapers, was president of the Ontario Field Naturalists, and worked as an interpretive guide. Recently Geoff published his second book – “Antarctic First Journey” – that tells the story of the wildlife, history and weather of the Antarctic. He has travelled the world, visiting about 80 countries and island nations on seven continents, and shared time with Polar Bears, Amazonian snakes and piranhas, observed the private lives of lions, avoided riots in Venezuela, hiked the Andes, camped with Pademelons, walked with penguins, sat with lemurs and canoed Ontario’s northern lakes

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