Winter arrived Wednesday with bone-chilling winds and 3 to 4 inches of new snow. It's nice to finally have a covering of white; it's been a long time since it's looked like a "winter wonderland" around here, The temperature dropped below zero the next day, and stayed there until the day after Christmas. It was time to dig out the old stocking cap.
At sunup on Thursday morning, the first bird to the feeder was a hungry little chickadee. He was soon joined by a nuthatch, then a dozen goldfinches. They hovered over their feet to keep the subzero cold from freezing their toes. They crouch this way when they sleep, too, and tuck their heads under their wings to protect them from the long, cold night.
I can't help thinking how tough these tiny birds really are. How amazing that such a little body contains enough warm blood and body fat to keep from freezing. It helps that their blood temperature is over 100 degrees, and that they can lower their heart rate to conserve energy. But with all the work it takes just to stay warm, it's no wonder these birds get hungry in this weather.
A single large black crow perched on top of one of the tray feeders. He too crouched down over his feet while he snapped up pieces of cracked corn.
A couple days ago, I was talking to a man who had recently seen a black squirrel in his woods. He had lived there for many years, and this was the first time he had seen one on his property. The next day I was in the nearby town of Westby when I too noticed a black squirrel, scampering across the street in front of me. The contrast of his shiny black coat against the white snow made for an especially striking sight.
The black squirrel is actually a melanistic color phase (variety) of the eastern gray squirrel. Often there may be several black squirrels in a given area—a two-block stand of old-growth trees in a city or town, perhaps. One town might have several small communities of black squirrels, while the next town down the road may not have any.
All squirrels are fun to watch, but a black squirrel particularly stands out in the winter landscape. Wildlife has become more noticeable since snow has covered the ground, with the black varieties of course the most obvious. It's a treat to watch a mob of black crows pick over a snow-covered cornfield, or a large black-and-white Pileated woodpecker fly across the snow-covered valley.
Passing by a farm, I spot a flock of black starlings that have strung themselves out along the fence that encircles the barnyard. They sit and chatter to each other as they wait for the farmer to break open a few hay bales for the horses. The starlings eagerly fly to the snow-covered ground and snap up scattered weed seeds from the dry bales of hay. From a distance, the starling's winter plumage appears to be all black, but up close one can see his iridescent green and purple feathers, the golden spots on the breast, and his sharp yellow beak.
Watch for the color black in the snow. What kinds of birds and animals can you spot against the white, winter wonder landscape?
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