cones in bucket

I was  sitting at the edge of our Outpost deck tying my hiking boot, when a green spruce cone bounced off my  head. Thinking nothing of it, I continued booting up.  Immediately a second cone dropped behind me and then a third.  Given there was no wind, I looked up to seek a “Why?” In a second, I saw another small cone sail out from the treetop and drop to the ground. I leaned out for a better view and heard the unmistakeable, sassy Chrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr of a red squirrel. I sat down and remained still. Soon it resumed showering two inch, pale green spruce cones again.

Squirrel and airborne cone

(Can you spot the airborne cone just below and to the left of the squirrel?)

While the calendar reads August, this smallest of the squirrels is deep into autumnal tasks. These hyperactive berserkers know little rest at this time of the year (beserkers were ancient Norse warriors possessed by a consuming frenzy).  Given that they cannot cope with winter by hibernating, they must rely on the boom and bust supply of spruce cones and other food stuffs. These cold weather survivors are champion hoarders.

I grabbed an old dented bucket that I had found a few years ago near the Skagway summit. The bucket was likely a remnant of the Klondike gold stampede, just over a century ago, that brought  thousands of folks  to the Yukon. While I was scolded by the red squirrel, I began to pluck the sticky, resinous cones off the ground and drop them into the bucket.I wanted to see how many cones the squirrel would snip and toss down. Let’s just say it took me longer to shuffle around plucking the tight cones off the ground than it took the squirrel to drop them. In less than 15 minutes I had more than half filled the bucket.

There are at least three distinct red squirrel territories around the Outpost. The frequent squirrel chirrings are a way they post their territory boundaries.For the most part they can be seen zipping here and there in their amazing herky-jerky accelerations and stops, with a single cone sticking out of their mouths like a big cigar.


The squirrel hurries each cone to its storage trove called a midden. The midden is a the hub of their hoarding efforts, usually located under a dense stand of spruce. Long established middens create humps on the forest floor. Many generations of squirrels will use the same middens.  When I step onto a midden, the dome is spongey and soft because it is mostly old spruce cone bracts. The cone bracts are the scales of a cone and protect the seed.

Earlier this summer, I repeatedly encountered white-winged crossbills picking through the middens. I often approached within a few feet of the birds before they would flush. Like the squirrel these birds are fond of the seeds. But without teeth, they have evolved to have a unique beak that resembles crossed fingers. This adaptation allows the crossbill to more easily extract spruce seeds from behind the bracts in the cone.

Like wise investors, squirrels don’t put all their eggs in one basket. They practice a strategy known as scatter-caching. I was introduced to this term over a decade ago when I first came to the Yukon with Nancy to paddle a remote river with the late Yukon wilderness guide, Dick Person. I noticed that every morning as we finished breakfast, Dick would tuck pieces of pancakes or toast into various clothing pockets on his body and daypack. After seeing this pattern develop I asked about it. “Scatter-caching,” he said, “like the red squirrels. You can never be sure when you need a surge of  calories so you improve your odds by scattering your riches.”

Funny, that’s the same advice that our financial advisor gave us. . . .Wall Street scatter-caching.

I have learned from them that red squirrels often gather mushrooms off the ground and carry them up into the trees. The squirrels hang the mushrooms, like drying laundry, high in the spruce or other trees. Being excellent hoarders, they frequently will take advantage of a good fungi year and harvest some for future use.

I carried my dented bucket away, so much for detailed data collecting. As I walked away, a squirrel delivered a scintillating staccato from the treetops.  This was clearly a long string of red squirrel cuss words rather than a melodious goodbye.