Saturday night a freezing rain came and covered the bare ground with a thick layer of ice. Next day the icy landscape sparkled and glistened in the midmorning sun. Warm temperatures had melted the few had melted the few inches of snow and made life a little easier for the animals who feed off the ground. If you make your living by picking up weed seeds or scratching for nuts and acorns on the ground, ice makes things more of a challenge. Turkeys and deer turn to eating the buds on the trees and bushes. This is good food, and can sustain them well enough, for a while. If there is a lot of snow on top of the ice, keeping the ground covered for much of the winter, they may have eaten most of the buds by April. If there are a lot of deer in an area, and still nothing else to eat, some of the deer may starve.
Many birds have trouble, too, if there is no way to scratch the ground for food. At first they can eat seeds of the weeds sticking above the ice. But when snow and ice linger until mid-spring, there may be a lot of hungry birds and animals waiting for the thaw to come.
When the pastures and fields along southern Wisconsin back roads are completely covered with snow, they sometimes appear barren and bleak to wildlife. Today to my surprise I see a flock of sparrow-sized brown birds with pointed wings fly up in the blowing snow, and land together on the roadside behind me. At first I wonder what they can possibly be doing out here, with nothing apparent to eat. Then I remember that these are Prairie Horned larks, hardy little birds well suited to make their home around here on open prairie. With their keen eyesight, they can spot the tiniest seeds exposed at the edge of the road by a snowplow. As long as they have a food source, the wind and cold don't seem to bother them. In four to five weeks, the Horned larks will pair up and begin their nesting season. Their February agenda puts them among the earliest birds to nest in Wisconsin.
The Snow bunting is another sparrow-sized bird you might see in the Wisconsin winter landscape. These hardy snowbirds make their summer homes on the northern Canadian tundra. When the harsh tundra winter arrives, they often migrate to the prairie states of the northern U.S. I saw a flock of twelve in an open snow-covered pasture last week, but in winters past, I have seen 1000 or more together in a single flock.
The Snow buntings' nesting ground may be at the edge of the Arctic circle, where there is ice and snow year round. They are named for their breeding plumage, in which they are white as the snow, except for black wings and tails. In the winter their plumage changes to soft brown and beige. Though they migrate south, they never go further than where they will usually find snow.
It's a thrill to see these lovely winter birds take flight together—a wave of white feathers and flashing wings.
While northern winters may seem harsh, it is comforting to see that there are ways for these hardy birds—the Prairie Horned lark and the Snow bunting—to find food. They are content to spend their winter days right here.
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