Seven Winter Birds

moon phase Week of 01/15/2006 Fruitful time for planting hardy root crops.

The "January thaw" came a little early this year here in the Kickapoo Valley. It's nice to have the mercury rise above freezing by eight or ten degrees—and having it stay warm for over a week has made this old hillbilly's life a little easier. Around here we're used to the cold weather we were getting a couple weeks ago, but it's nice not having to bundle up for a while.

Seven Winter Birds

This week's warm weather came accompanied by a few more of nature's spring-like surprises. Each day since the thaw, I've seen things that remind me of March. When the morning sun warmed the east-facing ridge, I spotted a mated pair of Red-tailed hawks sitting a foot apart on a branch of an old dead Elm tree—something I don't usually see for another two months. They looked pretty cozy up there, with their white breasts to the warming sun. Still, I have to remind myself that it's too soon to get excited about spring. After all, the days have just started to get longer. It will be winter for a while.

There's been a new visitor to the bird feeders the past few days. I've never seen a chipmunk this late in the year, yet there he was, filling his cheek pouches with sunflower seeds and running under a brush pile to stash them away. I wonder why he isn't asleep, in deep hibernation, like the rest of his family. Around here chipmunks are usually hibernating by the middle of November, and I don't expect to see them again until May. The little feller is the only Chippy out and about.

The mild weather has brought another fair weather visitor out of hiding. An opossum too has come to eat the birdseed on the ground under the feeders. Compared to the chipmunks, possums are light sleepers. Any time the temperature gets up around freezing, they wake up, with an appetite. When the mercury drops again—cold enough to freeze possum ears and tails—they retreat to a warm sleeping spot.

On my Sunday morning walk, I heard the familiar song of a Bluebird. I thought I was hearing things for a moment, but then a pair of lovely Bluebirds flew right past me, to land in some prickly ash at the edge of the woods. I've heard it's not unusual to see them wintering here the past few years, but they were the first I've ever seen this far into winter. Seeing bluebirds just about gave me spring fever, and I had to remind myself that it was only the middle of January.

Each night for the past week, around dusk, I hear the songs of a pair of Great Horned owls. I haven't heard the love songs of these owls for six years. The smaller, male owl sings his lower song—"hoo, hoo-oo, hoo, hoo." He repeats this song for his mate every 15 seconds or so. She replies with her higher-pitched "hoo, hoo-hoo-hoo, hoo-oo, hoo-oo." It really is spring for the owls; their courtship has already begun. The female could be sitting over a clutch of eggs within a month. I hope they stay around here to nest. They are probably looking for a large stick nest to use for their own. Great Horned owls don't usually build a nest, but rather find a nice rock ledge on a cliff or a ready-made nest from last summer's hawks or crows. No doubt they have discovered the Red-tailed hawk's nest across the road from the house, and are planning to move in. If they start nesting before the resident Red tails are able to chase them off, the hawks will have to build a nest somewhere else. A pair of hawks is no match for the nesting owls, a sure sign of spring

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