The cold weather has come and it’s probably here to stay. The past few nights the temperature has dropped into the twenties and the area ponds and backwaters have frozen over. The cold landscape is still and sleeping—only the hardiest birds and animals will be seen now. Many birds must now depend on finding seeds and berries to survive, now that the insects are gone. Some birds, like woodpeckers, search for insects under the tree bark or inside a dead trunk or limb.
Life changes for many kinds of wild birds when they no longer have the luxury of lots of nutritious insects to eat. In the summer, a Red-tailed hawk or kestrel can make a good living eating small snakes, frogs and large insects. Now he has to catch five or six fat-filled voles to satisfy his hunger.
The little goldfinches are expert seed finders and don’t mind picking the tiniest seed from the smallest dried flower heads. They especially like the dried flower heads from the many kinds of wild sunflowers and coneflowers. The same late summer flowers that graced us with their beauty are now doing an even greater service to the birds.
The little dark gray Juncos aren’t here in the summer—they live further north during the warm weather and move into our area for the winter. They seem to prefer to search on the ground for food—tiny fallen seeds, frozen insects, or what ever they find. It’s kind of a mystery just what they are eating, but they seem to do all right. The Juncos enjoy the hand-out of free seed that I sprinkle over the ground, where I can watch them, but often they would rather kick around in the dry leaves searching for food.
The pretty red cardinal’s thick beak is the very best for cracking open sunflower seeds. They can snap open the black seeds and pluck out the seed in less than five seconds. Only the squirrels can do it faster. The little nuthatches and woodpeckers must find a crack in a tree limb or in the bark of a tree trunk to hold the seed while they peck it open. This is time consuming and takes a minute or more to get one seed. The finches can open the black sunflower seeds by working them around in their tiny beaks—very efficient, it takes about ten seconds. They do a little better at it than the chickadee, who stands with the seed in his feet and hammers away at it for about fifteen seconds before flying down for another seed.
The Blue jays get the largest percentage of the sunflower seeds at the feeders. Not because they are much bigger and eat more or need more, no—it’s because they are hoarders. They fill their chops with seeds, then fly off and hide them for future use. A dozen Blue jays can clean the feeders in a couple of hours. It’s the jays’ way, it’s how they do it, it’s the way they ensure their survival. I have to ask myself, “Are the jays really greedy or am I foolish for giving them the free seed?” I guess if I didn’t really love the jays, I wouldn’t feed them just to have them near. Having them with me through the winter is well worth the price of a little seed. Besides, most of the seed they hide will be found by other small birds, mice and squirrels, so you could say the jay is just spreading the wealth. After stealing from the rich, he gives to the poor.
The temperature dropped into the single digits last night and the early morning meadow was covered with hard-white frost. It gave some new life to the subtle-colored landscape. It’s going to be and long but interesting winter.
The marsh pond is covered with a frosty blanket of ice, as if to tuck in those who sleep at the bottom. The autumn colors of the marsh grass is fading fast and soon will be laid to rest by a blanket of new snow. The weather man on the radio said, four to seven inches of snow tonight. Up until now, we’ve barely gotten a trace, but now I’d better have the shovel and broom handy. It’s not the snow I mind so much as the cold that follows, but next week is the week that it always gets cold enough to freeze the ground—ten degrees and colder. Here, that always happens near the tenth of December.
Cold weather means more work, ask any farmer. For me, it means more trips to the woodpile and more water to carry from the spring to the woodstove. It takes a little more work to stay warm when the hard cold comes, but the old wood stove is so comfy.
Snow on the ground means the wild birds will be busy at the bird feeders, especially when the hard cold comes. This is a good time to train the chickadees to eat out of your hand. Sitting still with some sunflower seeds in the palm of your hand may be a cold job but well worth it when they start coming. It’s important not to put any other seed out. All they want is the seed in your hand. Be patient. It only takes one chickadee to come to your hand and the others will follow. After a few days, it seems, at times, they all come at once.
I’ll be looking forward to my morning walk in the new snow and the crispy cold air on my face. It makes me feel alive in the face of nature. It wakens my senses the same way as a walk in the rain does. It’s the feeling I get from Mother Nature’s touch.
All art ©2013 Organic Valley