Squirrels leave very distinctive signs where they've been feeding - look for stripped cones and piles of scales
The easiest way to determine if squirrels are present in your local area is to check for signs of them feeding. Squirrels eat the cones of conifer trees in a very distinctive manner - quite differently to the way a mouse or bird would, for example. Searching for the remains of eaten cones is a simple way to find out if squirrels are present and also to learn what they've been eating.
The three main creatures who are likely to have eaten a cone that you come across in a wood in the UK are a squirrel (either red or grey), a mouse or a bird. In conifer woodland you could find a cone that's been eaten by a crossbill, but you're more likely to find cones that have been eaten by woodpeckers, and these are very distinctive. Follow our easy-to-use guide below to check what has eaten your cone.
Squirrels eat cones whilst sat in a tree and strip them from the base up. They hold the cone in their paws and pull the scales off with their sharp teeth to get at the seed inside. Some bits of the scales may be left on the cone, giving it a raggedy or feathered appearance. Once they've finished eating they discard the cone, so the best place to look for squirrelled cones is under a tree. Sometimes squirrels take cones to a stump or log to eat, so it is a good idea to check out places like this as well. You will often find piles of scales alongside the eaten cones.
Mice gnaw a cone rather than pulling off the scales, which leaves a discarded cone with a much neater appearance than one eaten by a squirrel. It also lacks the ragged base typically found on a squirreled cone and they leave fewer scale at the tip than squirrels do. They normally take cones elsewhere to eat, so you may find a pile of cones, although the locations are often partly hidden, e.g. in a hole. Voles also feed on cones but this feeding sign is indistinguishable from that of mice.
Woodpeckers use a regular ‘workshop’ such as an old tree stump or a crevice in tree bark. They wedge the cone in a gap and then prize the scales apart by hammering with their bill. The scales appear broken and bent at lots of irregular angles. You may find lots of discarded cones below the workshop.
Crossbills use their specially adapted beak to force scales open, often splitting them in the process. Individual scales may be split directly down the middle or there may generally be vertical splits down the cone but without the messy, battered look of a cone that has been worked by a woodpecker.
It's interesting to know what a squirrel has been eating and if you're not very good at tree ID, examining the cones is a good way to find out what species it is. Below are some pictures of commonly eaten cones in the UK.
Sometimes you may find just one or two of these cones but it's common to come across large piles of stripped cones and scales. Check out these pictures below to see what to look out for.
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