The days and long nights of winter are chilling and harsh, and only the most resourceful find food on the land. There's lots to eat for now, but only if you know where to find it. And finding food is a full-time job for the birds and animals that stay out of hibernation in the northern winter. There's little time for sitting around in the brief hours of sunlight.
The red-tailed hawk is one who takes in some sun while searching for food. She perches high on a branch in a large oak tree, searching the grass below for a vole. She won't use as much body fat if she stays warm. Because of this, the warming sun directly helps the hawk stay alive.
Mice and voles no longer have insects available to eat, so they have turned to nuts and seeds. Their metabolisms are extremely high, so they will perish in a matter of hours if they don't eat.
Weed seeds are numerous in this early part of winter, and the wild birds have a variety of them to choose from. A dozen pretty goldfinches have been gleaning the small seeds from a patch of tall brown mullein plants. The males' plumage has changed from bright canary yellow to soft creams and beiges, and now it's hard to tell them from the females. The finches are social creatures, so several will huddle close together and feed from a single mullein stalk. They can live off these small seeds, but they are not the only ones eating wild seed to survive.
A single hardy robin finds that the tasty seeds of the sumac are to his liking. The sumac is only a few yards away from the popular bird feeder, but the robin refuses my handouts. I'm not sure why, but these winter robins are very shy. They show little fear of human surroundings in the summer. It may be that they are not comfortable being close to other birds. For whatever reason, the robin sticks to his own sources of food for the winter months.
A beautiful male Harrier (Marsh hawk) glides along over the top of the marsh grass. Now that winter has arrived, he too has lost many of his food options, and must rely on catching field voles to make his living. Since grassland - which the voles in turn depend on for winter food—is becoming scarce, there are fewer and fewer places remaining for the Marsh hawk to find food. This may eventually cause the hawks to look for another place to spend the winter.
For some birds, finding free handouts has become a habit. During the warm months, for example, Bald eagles catch fish for their living. Winter freezes out many of their food options, but they may stay and live largely by scavenging. For wild turkeys, a walk through the farmer's picked cornfield gets them their handout. The leftover corn kernels are a free gift that might not be so easy to find when the snow gets deep. If that happens, the turkey will join his cousin the Ruffed grouse in dining on the nutritious buds on tree branches. In either case, they know how to find the foods that will sustain them until spring.
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