Why Squirrels Can’t Stay Away From Pine Cones (And What To Do About It)

by | Rodents, Squirrels

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If squirrels are taking over your pine trees or carrying pine cones in their mouths, you might be here to find out what these little animals want to do with all the pine cones. It turns out that…

Squirrels do two things with pine cones: they eat the seeds inside young pine cones, and they collect and store pine cones to eat the seeds later. Squirrels get a lot of nutrition from pine seeds that stay fresh through the winter, but squirrels eat and store many other kinds of foods too.

Squirrels have adapted interesting ways to get to the seeds in pine cones and store pine cones so they last a long time. Understanding what squirrels do with pine cones and what damage they can cause to pine trees will help you decide if you need to keep squirrels out of your pine trees and how to do that.

How squirrels eat pine cones

squirrel eating a cone in Yellowstone National Park in united states of america

Squirrels eat the seeds inside pine cones and not the pine cones themselves. They pick young green or brown female pine cones because these have nourishing seeds inside that squirrels find delicious.

Once a pine cone has matured and opened up, the seeds have probably been released into the wind and there is nothing left for a squirrel to eat.

Squirrels are rodents. One trait of rodents is that their front teeth never stop growing, so they need to gnaw on hard things to keep their front teeth short. If they don’t do this, their teeth get too long and the rodent starves to death.

This means that hard pine cones are the perfect snack for a squirrel to chew on.

A squirrel starts by chewing off the scales near the stem of the pine cone. It holds the cone with its front paws, either in the air or on the ground. Then the squirrel removes the scales one by one with its strong front teeth, working from the bottom of the cone to the top.  

As the squirrel removes scales, it turns the cone slightly with its paws to get access to the next scale on the cone. Female pine cones have two seeds under each scale. After removing a scale, the squirrel eats the two seeds stored inside.

Here’s a video of a squirrel eating a pine cone on the ground:

Once all the scales are removed the pine cone looks a lot like an apple core, and the squirrel throws it on the ground. If squirrels are eating your pine cones, you will find cone cores and loose pine cone scales lying under the tree, often in a pile.

Photo of a pine cone after being eaten by a squirrel

Squirrels tend to like eating pine cones from the same tree. Once they find trees with pine cones that they like, the squirrels often come back year after year to enjoy the seeds.

How and why squirrels store pine cones

Squirrels collect food to eat later. Tree squirrels do not hibernate, so they need to store as much food as they can for the cold winter months when food becomes scarce.

Squirrels store food in one of two ways:

  1. They store all their food in one place, which is called larder-hoarding.
  2. Most squirrels hide their food around their territory, which is called scatter-hoarding. When squirrels hide their food in different places, they usually store the same kind of food together, so they will have one area where they keep all their pine cones and separate areas for each type of nut they hoard.

Squirrels store pine cones where they find a good hiding place. They usually bury the cones underground or hide them in holes in trees, but some people say that squirrels have put cones under the hood of their car or that they’ve seen cones placed neatly in rows along a wall.

Squirrels like to cut young pine cones off tree because they know these cones still have seeds inside. They usually store the cones in places that are dark, cool, and moist so that the seeds are protected by the cones and last a long time.

You see, pine cones open and close depending on their surroundings. When it’s dark, damp and cold, a pine cone’s scales are swollen and kept tightly closed. This protects the seeds and the cone’s core, which is why pine cones don’t rot in snow or water. It’s also why cones make the perfect storage vessel for a squirrel’s winter stockpile.

When a pine cone gets hot and dry, its scales dry out and open to release the seeds.

Below is a video with some interesting facts and findings about pine cones…

Types of pine squirrels

There are 3 types of pine squirrels native to North America: The American red squirrel, the Douglas squirrel, and the southwestern red squirrel. Pine squirrels are tree squirrels that build nests in trees (not just pines), and eat pine seeds along with many other things that squirrels usually eat.

These native pine squirrels are found in the northern and western parts of the US, as well as in Canada, Mexico, and Alaska.

Many squirrels eat pine cone seeds as part of their diet, not just pine squirrels.

The American red squirrel

Photo of an American red squirrel - Wiki
Heading added to the the original image sourced, with thanks, from Cephas

The American red squirrel is also known as the pine squirrel, even though there are three types of pine squirrels. The American red is not the same as the Eurasian red squirrel, even though both are commonly called “red squirrels” in their home countries.

American reds are found across north America, the Rocky Mountains, Alaska, and Canada. Their fur is mostly red, but can also be gray or rust-colored. They have bushy tails, and these tails and their eyes have a white outline to them.

Red squirrels are territorial and will fight to protect their land and their cones. If you see a red squirrel staring at you, it may be a sign that you’re seen as a threat.

The Douglas squirrel

Photo of a Douglas squirrel - Wiki
Heading added to the the original image sourced, with thanks, from VJAnderson

The Douglas squirrel is a pine squirrel that is found in the northwestern states of the US and in British Columbia in Canada. These squirrels live in conifer forests or forests with some conifer trees. Conifers are usually evergreen trees that have needle-like leaves and carry cones.

A Douglas squirrel has a brown back and orange underside. It has a black line on either side of its body in summer, though the squirrel turns quite gray in winter and grows tufts on its ears for extra warmth.

Douglas squirrels eat mainly pine seeds, but they also enjoy tree sap, flowers, fungi, nuts, fruits, insects, and eggs. These squirrels are tree squirrels so they don’t hibernate. Their diet depends a lot on the season, and they will eat whatever they can find or have hidden away or buried in the forest.

The Douglas squirrel is a loud squirrel and is known as the noisiest of them all.

The southwestern red squirrel

Photo of a Southwestern red squirrel - Wiki
Heading added to the the original image sourced, with thanks, from Raphael Hofmann

The southwestern red squirrel is a pine squirrel found in mountains in the southwestern US, including the Rocky Mountains, the Sacramento mountains, and the Mogollon mountains. This squirrel used to be considered part of the American red squirrel group, but it has since been separated into its own group.

Southwestern red squirrels have red-brown and/or gray fur, with a light red band along it. Their belly is creamy white, and it’s separated from their back with a black strip on either side.

Their muzzle and chin are usually white, and their eyes have a white band around them.

Squirrels also chew pine trees

Sometimes squirrels damage pine trees. They may chew off or strip the bark to drink the sap running inside the tree. Other times, they nip off branches or make existing holes in tree trunks bigger.

Click here to read the full article on what damage squirrels can do to trees and why they do it.

How to stop squirrels from eating pine cones

You can’t stop squirrels from eating pine cones that have fallen to the ground but there are things you can do to stop squirrels from eating pine cones in your tree.

Below are the best tips, tricks, and products from Amazon that can protect your pine tree and its cones:

  • Squirrels usually jump from one tree to another, which is probably one of the ways that squirrels are getting into your pine tree. To stop them, cut down the branches on any trees that are within 5 feet (1.5m) of your pine tree.
  • Stop attracting hungry squirrels to your yard: remove bird feeders, secure your garbage bins, and keep your yard clean by picking up fallen cones, fruits, and nuts.
  • To stop squirrels from climbing up the trunk of a pine tree, wrap this sheet metal about 6 feet (2 m) up the tree’s trunk. Make sure to use sheet metal that’s at least 2 feet (60 cm) wide, and keep it in place with springs and wire so the tree can breathe and grow. When squirrels try to run up the tree, they will slip on the metal and won’t be able to get up.
  • Use these smells that squirrels hate in your garden, to make your yard an unwelcoming place for them. As a shortcut, one of the most effective smells to keep squirrels away is this pure fox urine, which you can spray on the trunk of your pine tree.
  • If the tree is small enough for you to reach the top, cover it with a tree net while the pine cones are young and still hanging in the branches. Squirrels will find a way in at some point (they’re clever like that), which is why some gardeners place nets over a few of their trees and sacrifice one or two trees that they leave open and let the squirrels do what they want.

I'm Monique. I love gardening and spending time in my backyard growing things. Here's where I share what I know about backyard pests and what to do about them, so you can enjoy your yard too.

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Monique loves gardening and spending time in her backyard, where she grows flowers, succulents, herbs, fruits, and vegetables.

Monique spends a lot of time researching how to protect her backyard from harmful pests and trying to attract beneficial insects and animals.

She shares everything that she learns and tests here at Backyard Pests.


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