City Wilds

Spruce tips on snow





It was one of the strangest sights I’ve seen along Anchorage’s Coastal Trail: on a weekend walk in late winter with my friend, William, and mixed collie, Denali, I spotted dozens of spruce tips scattered on the ground near the base of a tall and healthy spruce tree. While stopped to inspect the abundance of tips, William and I noticed more of them dropping toward the snow.

What a weird experience, to watch the green-needled tips of spruce branches falling through still air. It reminded me of the time, many years ago, when I was working on a story in my Hillside home and my attention was pulled out into the yard. Lifting eyes from computer screen to window, I watched in bewilderment while several spruce cones fell through the air, one right after another. It turned out to be the work of an ambitious red squirrel, harvesting cones for the winter ahead. By the time he finished for the day, scores of cones covered the ground.

While squirrels depend heavily on spruce cones to make it through Alaska’s winter, I’d never known them to eat spruce needles. So my first thought was that a porcupine might be feeding in the tree above us. Spruce needles are an important part of that species’ Alaska winter diet and a few years earlier I’d seen evidence of one porcupine’s work beneath a tree not far from where we stood.

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While I began looking for signs of a porcupine, William calmly suggested, “It’s a squirrel.”

Moving farther from the tree, I confirmed his suspicion. High above us, a squirrel was busily nipping the ends of spruce branches and dropping them to the ground.

The sighting both surprised and delighted me, for a couple of reasons. For one thing, it was the first squirrel I’d seen along this section of the Coastal Trail in months.

In past years, I would usually see two or three squirrels on any given walk. As often as not, they’d be perched on a spruce branch, twirling a cone in their hands and gobbling its seeds. This winter I hadn’t seen a single squirrel and rarely even heard one on my many walks along this stretch of trail. In fact this wooded part of the Coastal Trail was the first place I noticed evidence of what appears to be a larger scarcity: the dearth of squirrels throughout much of the Anchorage Bowl and adjoining Chugach Foothills this past winter (something I wrote about in an earlier City Wilds column and later was confirmed by several other local residents who pay attention to such things).

While happily surprised to see the squirrel, I was startled by its behavior, something entirely new to me. Over the years I have witnessed local red squirrels eat all sorts of wild foods, from spruce cone seeds to mushrooms, rose hips, devil’s club berries, and cottonwood seeds. Once I even watched a squirrel eat a black-capped chickadee nestling while the frantic parents helplessly flew around it, an awful thing to see.

I also know that, given the opportunity, red squirrels will dine on sunflower seeds, peanuts, and even peanut butter.

But spruce needles? Uh-uh. Not in my experience.

Not even the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s red squirrel “species profile” mentions spruce needles in the animal’s diet.

Naturally, I had to learn more. So I did an online search and finally found an April 2017 article on the Michigan State University Extension website, which reported, “Pesky red squirrels will feed on spruce buds when other foods become scarce in the winter.”

I don’t agree that red squirrels are necessarily pesky, though I know they can be, for instance when they steal seeds from birdfeeders or find their way into people’s homes. In any case, the article continued, “Is the ground around your spruce tree littered with branch tips? If so, this is probably the work of a hungry red squirrel. Rather than just eating the buds {which I’ll note here, will later in spring produce soft, edible, lime-green shoots that eventually become new spruce needles], these pesky rodents prefer to first prune the branch tip from the tree, eat the bud then discard the branch. As the squirrel continues to dine, the branch tips pile up on the ground below.”

That’s exactly what we found, though the Coastal Trail squirrel was cutting and flipping the spruce branch tips so quickly, it was hard to say whether the animal was eating any buds before tossing the needled tips. I suppose it could have decided to snip the branches and later eat the grounded buds.

Farther into the article the author does mention that squirrels will, if hungry enough, eat spruce needles as well as buds.

Besides the novelty of our discovery, the encounter with the spruce-tip nipping squirrel confirms my suspicion that this past winter was an exceedingly hard one for many local red squirrels (especially those who don’t live in places where people put out feeder foods) and recalls the phrase “desperate times call for desperate measures.”

Some of that desperation may have eased now that we’ve moved into the more benign season of spring. Being “opportunistic omnivores” it seems likely that most of the squirrels that survived winter’s scarcity will now find enough food to get by until spruce trees produce this year’s batch of cones, whether insects, spruce buds, the soft greens of newly sprouting plants, or maybe even overwintered berries. Even though the worst is over, now is not the time for any local squirrel to be a picky eater.

Anchorage nature writer Bill Sherwonit is a widely published essayist and the author of more than a dozen books, including “Living with Wildness: An Alaskan Odyssey” and “Animal Stories: Encounters with Alaska’s Wildlife.” Readers wishing to send comments or questions directly to Bill may do so at akgriz@hotmail.com.

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