When Will You See Maple ‘Copters Flying?

Maple seeds have been swirling everywhere this spring. Find out what it means and the science behind their flight!

Helicopters, maple ‘copters, whirlybirds, twisters or whirligigs – no matter what you call a maple seed, they’re still an endless source of fascination. Many of our Farmers’ Almanac readers and Facebook fans have been asking about the large number of “helicopters” they’ve been seeing, and does it mean anything?

What Are Maple Copters, Anyway?

First, the technical term for this winged seed is samara, which refers to a specialized fruit that is designed to travel long distances from the parent tree. Some ash and elm trees also produce samaras, although the maple’s samaras are the very best at flying.

Maple trees that are healthy sometimes skip a year in seed formation, either due to poor pollination or to an exceptionally good growing season the year before. An over-abundance of samaras sometimes means the tree experienced some sort of “stress” the previous year, so producing a bumper crop of seeds is the tree’s way of carrying on the species, should that stress continue and that particular tree not survive.

Why Do Maple Seeds Fly?

One reason is that among trees, maples have some of the largest, widest canopies. That means for a seedling to grow, the seed can’t simply fall to the ground beneath the tree like a nut or a fruit. And, since only a few animals eat the seeds – mostly turkeys, finches and on rare occasions, squirrels and chipmunks – there is very little chance that wildlife will pick up the seeds and carry them elsewhere. To get around these obstacles, maples developed winged samaras as a way to transport their fruit to sunnier, more hospitable places.

Helicopter - Red maple
Winged seed of the red maple

A Natural Lesson in Aerodynamics

Maple seeds are one of those natural wonders that feature a nearly perfect design. In fact, scientists are using what they’re learning from these flying seeds to develop micro flying machines and even tiny helicopters that can be used for space exploration or to learn more about the atmospheres of planets like Mars.

It all starts with the shape. With a long wing that balances the weight of the seed, maple seeds are perfectly designed for flight. Since the seeds don’t fall away from the tree until they’re dry, they’re very light, which helps them travel farther.

If you examine a maple seed closely, you’ll notice that the wing gets wider further away from the seed. When the seed spins, the air moving over the wide end of the wing moves faster than the air closer to the seed, which gives the seed the lift it needs to stay aloft. Then there are the veins on the leading edge of the wing, which generate just enough turbulence to help it cut through the air.

Red Maple Tree seed or Maple copter

Tiny Tornadoes

Those are the basic ideas behind flying maple seeds, but when scientists dug a little deeper into the aerodynamics, they found something interesting. While observing the seeds in a smoke-filled wind tunnel, researchers noticed that they actually form a small vortex – like a tiny tornado – atop the wings. That vortex lowers the pressure above the seed, generating even more lift. Insects and hummingbirds rely on the same kind of vortex to hover in one spot.

Wings Aren’t Just for Flight

The wings give maple seeds another huge advantage. Once a maple seed lands, the wing helps it stand upright between blades of grass or other foliage. The upright seeds have a better chance of embedding themselves into the soil below. Once pressed into the soil – whether by a passing foot, the weight of snow or something else – the wings break away so that the seed can germinate more easily.

When Will The ‘Copters Fly?

It depends on what kind of maple tree you have, and each is on its own schedule:

Silver maple – late spring.

Red maple -in late spring or early summer and fall.

Sugar maple – The samaras have 1-inch wings that ripen from early summer into autumn. About two weeks after samaras mature, sugar maples drop them.

Now that you know more about the maple’s flying seeds, you’ll be even more fascinated by the hundreds of them you see swirling towards the ground each year.

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Amber Kanuckel

Amber Kanuckel is a freelance writer from rural Ohio who loves all things outdoors. She specializes in home, garden, environmental, and green living topics.

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We have a Maple tree that had helicopters in the spring. However, this fall we had dark helicopters in October. This was the first time since we have lived here since 2005. I am waiting to see what our winter will be like. I feel that this was done for the animals to have extra food during a bad winter. I have found nothing in any books that prove this yet. So I will see.


I’m trying to find out if this is a mast year for Norway Maples. This is the first time in 30 years that our Norway Maple has had “noses” still hanging on and dropping in January! They are EVERYWHERE and there are so many. It seems to be only Norway Maples. Our Sugar Maple has no seeds at all.


What month specifically in the fall do the seeds drop? We have a couple sugar maples but its almost the middle of October and I haven’t seen a single seed from them. They are also very green still. I’m worried they are diseased.

Last edited 2 years ago by Kat
Susan Higgins

Hi Kat, it depends on the tree variety. Some don’t drop until fall, others drop in the spring.


Are maple trees the only one that have these


We have two maples in the backyard of the house we just moved into and they are both losing whirlybirds but one in particular is dumping tons of them. Quite the mess but I’m glad to find out it’s normal for this time of year.

Chuck Breckenridge

Our neighbors have a 200 year old maple. It is majestic. Every 3-4 years we get the dumping of the keys. We have a pool and try to coordinate opening with the tree.

We have had layers deep from the tree. Last year we were lucky with the wind. It went the other way.

This is life and nature… what can we do but enjoy it! ( and skim and vacuum).❤️

Susan Higgins

Thanks for sharing, Chuck. We agree!

Joe H

Send me some of the seeds !!!

Lynette Filipov

We have lived in our house for 23 years and I have NEVER seen so many helicopters on my lawn and garden! What a mess. Ours is a silver maple.

Last edited 2 years ago by Lynette Filipov

This year the “polynoses” are smal l, abundant, dry and pale yellow. Any significance?


Mine are as well..I actually thought the tree might be dying until I googled it and found that many maples are doing that this year! What a mess on the lawn tho.

N. Gryan

I also hate the whirlybirds, my neighbor has two giant silver maple trees in their backyard, the builder gave one to each new home, we got rid of ours and never planted it. But now 35 years later we get the blunt of all the mess that comes with the whirlybirds, our flower garden has to be weeded once the wings take root, they are all over our yard, deck and the gutters are full. Very messy trees, not to be planted in a neighborhood!


Agree! My neighbor also has 2 growing 15 ft from my house. What a mess every year. If it’s not the whirlybirds it’s the leaves in the fall. And the wind blows towards me so her mess lands in my yard, on my $ 600 worth of rubber mulch,
in my garage and along the fence line killing all the grass and in my gutters.. These trees have no business being planted in neighborhoods. And people who have these trees should cut them down and replace them with a more appropriate tree for the yard.


Maple trees support many insects and birds. Instead of cutting them down, we should be adapting the other plantings in the yard to be more environmentally friendly. We have a maple tree near our pool, we simply wait until after the seeds are shed to take the cover off and open it.

Teresa Weeks

I hate whirlybirds! I have spent countless hours picking them out of my flower beds! And, then cutting out miniature maple trees growing where other plants are located! They are a nuisance in Iowa!

Belinda Berryman

No tree is a nusience


So I came here by looking around for an answer to a question I have. The helicopters started dropping 2 days ago. They got all in my flower bed since. I went to put a fresh layer of dirt in my flower bed but I left the helicopters in the bed and put dirt over them.

Do I have to worry that these hundreds of maple seeds will sprout? I really didn’t think much of it because my wife pointed out that if they were seeds we would have maples growing everywhere but now seeing this maybe putting dirt over them was a bad idea?

Sean Graham

Yes, you will have tiny maples in your landscape. Although I doubt more than normal as squirrel and chipmunk love to plant them for you even if you do nothing.


How many years before a Japanese maple begin to produce helicopters?

Susan Higgins

Hi Mary, there are so many cultivars of these maple trees that it’s hard to say for sure. Some experts say 2 years, others 10, depending on if they’re growing in ideal conditions.

Lori T

We have 3 Japanese maples that are 25 years old and never produced “whirlybirds”.

Chuck Gill - Goffer Nursery

I am looking for a Maple, to ID. It produces red helicopters or seed pods. It is “not” a red maple. It is growing in a wet land area.


My Native Red Maples (Acer Rubrum) have green leaves that are much smaller than other maple varieties, the new branches in spring are red, and the fall color is beautiful from reds to yellow to orange. This year 2021 MA the keys fell in spring and again in fall. The burgundy Crimson King Norway Maple is invasive and banned in MA.


These acer rubrum seed keys are pale red and tiny.

Marylou Hampleman

Why is my silver maple dropping helicoptera in the spring? I don’t remember it doing this before


I read it can take 10 years for a silver maple to start dropping keys.

Marylou Hampleman

Why is my silver maple dropping helicopters in the spring? I don’t recall them doing this before


I grew up in a suburb of St. Louis MO and we called them maple squirts. When they’re green you can shoot the seed out by squeezing them. It was fun.

Jack Gann

As a child, I learned from other
children that you could put the
wing portion in your mouth,
on top of the tongue & roof of
the mouth, & blow. You can
with practice, make a shrill
whistle. It was much fun.


I had to use a shop vac this year on the non grass areas. It worked great. I went to 4×6 above ground gardens this year and put landscape cloth then indoor outdoor carpet on top of that instead of mulch so I can sweep or vacuum them up next year too.

Karen McKee

We have lived in our current home for 3yrs. We are both over 70. This year our tree dropped thousands of whirlybirds. We weren’t able to rake them up, they just kept falling. Now our front yard is full of seedlings some now up to 4-5”. They mow weekly but we don’t know what to do. If we leave them they will kill the grass. Is there a weed killer that will destroy the whirlybirds but not our grass. Can’t seem to get any answers locally. We live in Topeka, KS had an extremely cold winter and now an enormous amount of rain. Please help if you can

Robert Bainbridge

Triamec is a liquid weed killer that I use. It kills broad leaf plants in the lawn without killing the grass

Paul corwin

Help,my maple tree drops seeds three,four times a year.It’s about 45 years old and it has beeb doing this about four years now.This spring is the worst ever.My yard and surounding area are covered.


Thats why we always called them pollynoses !


What season/ do they drop in Massachusetts?

Gary Incremona

Yes, the seed inside is edible.

Sharon Smith

We have a lot of the single ones in Amsterdam. They are so efficient at germinating. I have seen them forming a varpet of seedlings.We need to keep them swept up, otherwise they will grow out of the drain hole on our balcony.The roots grow very fast.


Are maple seeds edible ?

Belinda Berryman



I have 2 in my side yard. 1 Sugar Maple and 1 Canadian Maple. They are 60+ feet high and 45+ years old. I know ALL about Whirligigs… But in the fall they are BEAUTIFUL and help provide oxygen to the Planet !!!!

Belinda Berryman



Now tell us efficient ways to clean them up, please? These guys are stuck in our lawn!


When my husband and I were just starting our family he would help his grandfather. In return papaw insisted he pay for the help. Instead of blowing the money we went to Lowes and purchased a Silver Maple tree every week for a month. They are now probably 40 ft tall and just as wide. Each one was planted as a dedication to my husbands grandfather. Our helicopters are his spirit protecting our land. Love this article and we love our trees. They are now 25+ years old and growing strong.


This is really wonderful!


Thanks for posting…..wondered why there are so many this year!

gail dekubber

i can remember when i was a little girl, i use ti split them in half and stick them to my nose!

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