Willow Ptarmigan

moon phase Week of 12/19/2004 Favorable days for planting starters.

Last week nature's trail took us to the southwest to find the black hawk. This week we travel to the far north, in search of the Ptarmigan—the white grouse. This beautiful bird lives high in the Rocky Mountains between North Texas and Montana, Canada and Alaska. They have the remarkable ability to change the color of their feathers with the seasons, making them masters of camouflage.

Willow Ptarmigan

At 12 to 13 inches, the Willow ptarmigan is the smallest member of the grouse family in North America. They remain in their Rocky mountain homes year-round. They feed on insects, flowers, leaves and catkins in the summer, and in the winter they survive on whatever they can find—mostly seeds, pine needles, and buds. During the summer their plumage is a mixture of white, beige, and browns, to blend perfectly with the grassy, rocky landscape. In the winter, when the mountains are covered with snow, the ptarmigan changes color to better blend into the white landscape. Their ability to blend into their surroundings is their main, and very effective, defense from predators. It is said that they are not easily spooked when approached, because they trust that if they remain still they will be concealed. You may walk right by them without provoking them to flush. The ptarmigan is a very special bird indeed.

Here in Wisconsin, the temperature dropped down around zero last night, cold enough to freeze the Kickapoo River from bank to bank. My Organic Valley bird feeders (made from organic orange juice cartons) were crowded this morning, with blue jays, cardinals, chickadees, titmice, nuthatches and crows all stopping by for a bite. A frisky little Pine squirrel also tried to find a place at the feeder, but the crows and jays gave him a rough time. He eventually decided to stay on the ground and pick up seed with the juncos, who are more hospitable.

It's never too late to put our a couple of bird feeders, but once you do, keep them filled at least until the weather gets warm in late April. Personally, I like to have wild birds around all the time, so I fill my feeders year round. I figure the cost of seed into my budget, and the enjoyment I get in return from the wild birds is priceless. It's a great way to bring nature into your life—and, since many birds eat insects in the summer, it's an organic asset to your yard and garden.

There's lots of ways to feed the birds. A couple of tubular finch feeders filled with seed will attract goldfinches, purple and house finches, pine siskins and buntings. Fill another of those hanging tube feeders with sunflower seeds and attract woodpeckers, grosbeaks, doves and tree sparrows. You can make platform feeder as simple as a wide board, set on two blocks of wood a foot from the ground, or nailed to the top of a wooden fence post. It's important, though, to clear snow and old seed remnants from the feeder surface.

My favorite place to put a platform or tray feeder is on the windowsill. Use a 1 foot by 2 foot board and two shelf brackets to place the feeder level with the bottom windowsill, and enjoy watching the birds close-up! Or just sprinkle some seed on a porch rail, or even spread some around on the ground. If you have children, get them involved by letting them keep the feeders filled. What they learn first hand from the wild birds will stay with them throughout their lives.

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