We should've known it was coming with this summer's above average rain and mild temperatures. Early in the season, you could see clusters of cones forming at the tops of the pine trees. And now the ground is covered by them. Stand outside for any length of time and you'll hear a steady stream of cones dropping from the tree tops, being chewed off by industrious squirrels.
All this got me curious to do a little hands-on learning about the pine cone. I step over, around, and on them almost daily, but have never picked one up to really study it.
The cone of course is the fruit of a coniferous tree and its main function is to be the carrying case for the tree's precious seeds.Rows of tough scales protect the seeds, but as the cone dries and the scales open up exposing the inside of the cone, the seeds that had been nestled away safely near the core of the cone become more accessible to the wildlife. I brought some cones inside with the scales barely open; 2 days later, the scales had peeled back, exposing the seeds.
The seeds are attached to a wing. As they fall out of the cone, the weight of the seed pulls it toward the ground, while the helicopter-like action of the wing slows its descent, providing a fun whirlygig-like descent.
When you look inside the cone, there are 2 seed heads tucked up close to the inner core of the cone and the wings rest neatly on the top of each cone scale.
The seeds near the bottom of the cone were more developed than those near the top. Within an average size Eastern Pine cone like the one I studied, there could be more than 100 seeds encased within, protected by the 50+ scales.
As the cones open, the seeds can either fall out or be picked out by wildlife. Here's a few images of a Dark-eyed Junco feeding on seeds from the Eastern Pine.
These seeds provide a feast for the birds, along with all the other natural food that is still so abundant and available. But as days pass, insects will become less available when temperatures drop and the ground freezes. Uneaten fruits and berries will shrivel and fall, and snow will eventually cover the ground making natural food less accessible. And as fall turns into winter, like during the closing hours of a buffet, natural food sources will become depleted. It is then that the familiar feeder birds that have been enjoying nature's smorgasbord will again turn to our feeders for the high energy snacks that make it just a little easier to survive the long, cold winter months.