Winter Birding Brings Nature to All

Published in the Waitsburg Times, February 6th, 2020.

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Growing up a hunter, my mother and I agreed rarely in our views of humans interacting with our ecosystem, save for our thoughts on habitat conservation and a deep appreciation for nature’s beauty and songbirds. Sitting together by the back-porch door of her Appalachian home, sipping a warm beverage as a light snow falls through the naked deciduous forest, marveling over visitors to her bird feeders is something I have dearly missed since leaving home.

This is a simple example of the power that songbirds have on society as a whole. They may seem common, but are extraordinary in their natural abilities and habits. Equally extraordinary is their ability to bridge the gaps among cultures, ages, and social differences, connecting us with our natural world, inspiring artists, developing ornithologists and arousing wonder in young and old.

Birds represent spiritual and religious symbolism among many nations. They stand at the helm of conservation movements and non-profit organizations. They represent sports teams. Racheal Carson’s incredibly motivating Silent Spring touted the detrimental effects to songbirds from rampant DDT application in the 1950s, swaying her readership to pursue environmental legislation which eventually led to the formation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Songbirds serve as our most common connection to nature and can be admired by anyone, virtually anywhere and at any time, like today, right now, outside your kitchen window or patio door, from a city block or a secluded cabin.

Some of the typical species to the Waitsburg area in winter include the house finch, cedar waxwing, red-winged blackbird, house sparrow, Oregon junco, American robin, brown creeper, red-breasted nuthatch, golden-crowned kinglet, northern flicker, and the list continues. The cedar waxwing is the masked species I enjoy the most as it descends from its montane habitat to overwinter in the foothills and valley floor.

One of the most fascinating aspects of songbirds is their plumage that changes with the seasons. The brilliant spring and summer colors, like the sunflower yellow of the gold finch, are shed for calmer winter plumage suited for survival. Songbirds can tough out incredibly cold temperatures by fluffing up their feathers, creating an insulating layer around their small bodies. Some species grow additional plumage to serve this purpose when molting during late summer or early fall.

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⇑⇑ A sneaky wren grabs a seed from beneath a flock of voracious gold finches as a female cardinal awaits her turn. Photo courtesy of Carolyn Phillips. ⇑⇑

Feeding and metabolic strategies support songbirds through the winter as well. They generally maintain an active body temperature at about 106 degrees Fahrenheit, and may slow their metabolism to reduce body temperature and conserve energy as they sleep. Like other animals, songbirds store fat to fuel their metabolism and insulate their bodies. Some species will store as much as 10 percent of their body mass as fat during winter.

Additionally, songbirds seek strategic roosting areas like natural tree cavities, dense grasses and evergreens or shrubs. While a common practice to remove birdhouses outside of the nesting season, Birds and Blooms recommends leaving them up over winter to provide safe, warm roosting opportunities. Specific roosting houses are available on the retail market as well.

Similar to birdhouses, hanging bird feeders is the most common method of “backyard birding”. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s 2016 census, over 65 million Americans have hung a bird feeder at some point, if not consistently. In winter, high-fat food sources including black oil sunflower, safflower, and suet cakes packed with seeds are what birds seek. But beware of “economy” seed mixes as birds largely discard the filler millet, milo, corn, etcetera, to get at the fattier sunflower seeds.

Would you like to see a specific species frequent your feeder? You may want to consider separating food sources or feeding stations. This will allow species to hone in on their favored items or feeding methods rather than jockey for space at a crowded feeder or avoid the feeder entirely. Additional information on different types of bird feeders and setting up feeding stations can be found online at https://www.fws.gov/birds/bird-enthusiasts/backyard/bird-feeding.php.

What about the birdbath? Having a water source in winter is important to songbirds. This is less critical in our banana-belt area of Washington, but when the temperature dips below freezing, birdbaths are well attended. A wide range of birdbath heaters can be found at Amazon.com. It need not be spendy, just reliable, and they actually make excellent holiday or birthday gifts for the birder in your family.

 

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⇑⇑ Eastern bluebirds flock to the birdbath on a frigid, Virginia afternoon. Photo Courtesy of Carolyn Phillips. ⇑⇑

With the above in mind, feeder and birdbath placement for birding from the comfort of home is important, particularly for photography. Place the feeders where you and the birds can access them easily in all weather. Maintain a good line of sight to the feeder and place it an appropriate distance from the house to provide the desired photo effect (or to ensure that those of us with failing vision can still identify the species). Maybe you have a spot inside to set up a tripod and train the camera to the feeder. This will allow you to capitalize on quick opportunities when that special bird shows up. This can also contribute significantly to photo quality and clarity, as will clean windows.

Songbirds are the tie that binds humans to our natural world, and clearly arouse interest and emotion. The ease of birding at home provides an undeniable opportunity to experience that emotion and wonder from our couch or kitchen table; an especially attractive prospect when the jet stream delivers an arctic blast.

Regardless of how you do it, birding is entertaining, and a great way to knock the edge off of cabin fever. So, are you ready to get your birding on?

SIDEBAR:

Suet cakes can be made at home with a simple Crisco, peanut butter and sunflower seed recipe. Place ingredients in a medium sauce pan and warm. Mix ingredients together, let it cool, shape it in a container or on wax paper. Place in the freezer for 30 minutes to solidify and it’s ready.

  • 1-1/2 cup Crisco
  • 1/2 cup peanut butter
  • 1 cup sunflower seeds.

Upland Pursuits – Animals Survive, Adapt and Thrive in Winter

Published February 20th, 2021

Here we are again, on the far side of the winter solstice, hunkered beneath a blanket of freezing fog and snow. Our latitude offers approximately eight hours of daylight early in the calendar year. And, while most humans seek winter shelter in our heated homes and celebrate holiday feasts, wildlife experience a greater challenge, making due with what Mother Nature provides (or doesn’t), and relying on innate strategies to see the winter through.

Animals are keenly attuned to environmental cues like photo period (day length) which drive their responses to the changes in seasons. Similar to putting on your winter coat, mammals like squirrels, bear, deer and elk grow a coat of insulating fur and seek to fatten up, devoting more time and attention to foraging. Bears go into hibernation while elk and mule deer, and songbirds make winter migrations to warmer climes and more abundant food sources.

Nut-bearing trees in our local communities feed populations of non-native eastern fox squirrels. Glancing around town, you will likely notice these orange, bushy-tailed tree rats scurrying, digging and burying all fall. Squirrels can stash up to 10,000 nuts for winter forage, creating caches in hollow trees and other convenient hiding spots, like your home attic.

Songbirds that overwinter locally feed tirelessly throughout our short winter days. Weed seeds, nuts and berries are typical wild food sources, supplemented by our home bird feeders. High-energy foods like sunflower seeds are a staple in their daily diets.

Songbirds reduce their body temperature at night to avoid excessive energy expense to keep warm. As the sun rises, a flush of activity occurs for several hours as they feed. Midday usually brings reduced activity and short periods that will have you wondering if the birds have simply vanished, but the afternoon rush will soon hit with another flurry of wings.

A western chickadee forages among deciduous shrubs.

Critters like reptiles that cannot regulate body temperature seek winter shelter in burrows or covered in mud where the ground temperature is warmer than the air. They don’t require food, but must avoid freezing. Some frogs even create their own “anti-freeze” to avoid cell damage.

Beavers stash food below the water surface in case a freeze prevents them from foraging, and their tails store fat for the lean times. Chipmunks cache food in their burrows and remain below ground when the weather is exceptionally rough.

The snowshoe hare may use a burrow as well, and feed on plants and twigs that they dig or find protruding from deep snow. Their large feet allow them to move across the snow surface without sinking in, reducing energy expense for foraging and providing efficient predator avoidance.

While the hardships of winter are evidenced by wildlife adaptations for survival, these adaptations allow species to thrive through freezing temperature and deep snow, like the snowshoe hare, which lives right here in the Blues.

One of the most abundant and well-distributed mammals in North America, hares rarely starve. Research suggests they maintain consistent body mass throughout the year. Their large feet, white winter coats, and efficient digestive system allow hares to prosper on minimal, and at times, poor-quality food sources over the northern latitude winter.

A snowshoe hare spends its day hidden beneath snow-covered vegetation. Photo by the National Park Service.

Ravens are another local example of an animal that has adapted well to winter living. During the warmer months, ravens are active predators, as well as feeding generalists. But when winter pickings become slim, ravens turn largely to carrion. Ravens have been documented following wolf packs, feasting socially alongside them. Ravens are highly intelligent and wary of novel food sources, but trust the prey of wolves, swooping in almost immediately as the pack makes a successful kill.

Scientist and author, Bernd Heinrich, published a book titled “Ravens in Winter”, presenting a surprisingly captivating study on raven feeding and social behaviors in New England. Heinrich found that ravens cash carrion when in abundant supply and communicate openly with fellow ravens, leading them to new food sources.

The common raven. Photo by Christopher Bruno.

While viewing the winter world from the comfort of our heated homes, it appears an inhospitable place. It’s easy to anthropomorphize the plight of wildlife from our understanding of discomfort and hardship. Yet, animals have the gig nailed, surviving, adapting and thriving with typical grace and beauty. Take a snowy day walk in the forest or even around town this winter. Stop, look and listen to the feathered and furred lives busy at work. And take inspiration from their resilience and resourcefulness, making the most of what is provided every single day.