By Coggin Heeringa, Director, Crossroads at Big Creek
Fall is such a great time to hike at Crossroads at Big Creek, Ida Bay Preserves and, of course, throughout Door County as a whole. The leaves are turning. The scent of autumn is in the air. And strange little piles of twigs are appearing around tree trunks, evidence that flora and fauna are preparing for the coming winter.
Because we find twigs around a few, but certainly not all trees, we just have to figure that something other than wind caused the arborvitae (white cedar) twig carpet. The first guess is that the Red Squirrels have been busy.
These hyperactive creatures are collecting cones, which they cache in order to eat the seeds throughout the winter. Admittedly Red Squirrels are little acrobats, but to pull a cone from the end of the branch on which it is balancing is precarious at best. It’s easier to just bite off the cone-bearing twig and drop it to the ground. Later, the squirrels will collect the cones for winter storage.
If it seems to you that the arborvitae have an unusually heavy crop of cones this year, it is not your imagination. In arborvitae — in most trees, actually — seed production varies wildly from year to year. Seed production requires a huge investment of energy, so in years when they do make an enormous quantity of cones, the tree really don’t grow very much. And this year, there are so many cones, the trees seem to be a different color.
Other years, cedars have very few cones, but significant growth. Rarely do trees have heavy seed crops in successive years. They can’t squander all of that energy year after year and still survive. But there might also be survival value in having productive years followed small seed crops.
This is speculation, but we do know that food availability influences squirrel populations. Trees produce seeds in order to reproduce and perpetuate their species. An overabundance of seeds for several years in a row could cause a spike in the population of hungry squirrels and consequently, result in fewer seeds surviving the winter to germinate the next spring.
Usually, a heavy seed crop means trees are healthy and vigorous. Unless it doesn’t. When trees are under severe stress…potentially life-ending stress…they sometimes do a strange thing. They take their last bit of energy and instead of using it to survive, they invest all of their remaining reserves in one last ditch effort to perpetuate their species. It’s not something a tree can decide, but apparently stresses like drought or severe weather can trigger the release of chemicals that stimulate seed production.
With all the arborvitae in Door County laden with an overabundance of cones, this may be just one of those heavy seed crop years and that the squirrels and the siskins are going to be well-fed this winter.
If you’d like to seed nipped twigs or fall colors or just get some exercise, Crossroads at Big Creek has scheduled several naturalist led hikes this week or feel free to use the trails, free of charge, 24/7.
Crossroads at Big Creek is a donor-supported environmental center made up of three preserves. The Collins Learning Center, located at 2041 Michigan is open 10 am – 4 pm daily and during scheduled events.