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As I write this week’s column I’m thinking March is right on schedule – if you count snow, rain and sleet as coming in like a lion. What’s forever astounding to me is how we mere humans hunker down against the storm like so many barnyard hens, but our wild neighbors seem to move about as if it were a balmy summer day.
Just this morning there were a dozen crows in the back yard oak, two raccoons waddling down the driveway and about 30 wild turkeys side-stepping into the yard for their daily fix of bird seed. Believe it or not, that many turkeys can eat half a bag of sunflower seeds in about 20 minutes. I’m doing my best to fatten them up but I wish the hens would let the gobblers shoulder their way in once in a while.
For a while I was listening to what I thought was my neighbor banging ice off his eaves with a hammer, but then it got to be midday and the hammering hadn’t stopped. I braved a period of steady, heavy sleet to get a glimpse of what was going on and was surprised to find a pileated woodpecker tapping away at a dead pine on the edge of the pasture. The big, old “laughing bird” had drilled five or six holes at least three inches into the tree and was chipping away with his stout beak like a fireman checking the walls for burning insulation. The big bird had apparently been at work throughout the storm because the snow was littered with chips and most were on top of the snow.
I let him continue his work, planning to cut that tree for firewood later this spring. It must be full of insects for the woodpecker to be that focused on it, and he needs the protein more than I do! I’m sure he’ll be long gone and working on another rotted pine by the time I get around to cutting this one up for the stove, so there’s no loss on either side.
I went out to try to track the raccoons back to their den and found that they’d traveled over a mile from “the ledges,” a gnarly pile of rocks on high ground well away from any human habitation. The pair must have wintered there because there were no tracks going in, just coming out. There were also plenty of signs of porcupines in those same ledges, deep trails leading from the rocks to the nearest hemlocks, which were heavily trimmed at their tips and slowly being stripped of their bark as well. I’m not sure what sustenance a porcupine gets out of eating hemlock, but I know the diet doesn’t improve the flavor of porcupine flesh! The few I’ve tried to eat were extremely tough and stringy, and in the cooking gave off the cloying odor of turpentine! They claim everything has its place in nature, but I have to wonder what valuable niche the porcupine might hold. They seem content to be where they are at the moment, and I suppose that’s a lot more accepting than most humans will ever be. Not that I’d consider trading places with them!
Roaming raccoons are one good sign of an approaching spring. It means they have awakened from their winter slumbers and will be getting ready to mate. Unfortunately, many of them will end up feeding crows on the side of the road because they are neither quick nor intuitive when it comes to dodging passing vehicles.
Right behind the raccoons will be another harbinger of spring, one that is more often smelled than seen. Of course, that can only be the striped skunk, which is another slow boat when it comes to judging auto speed and direction. We’ll begin noticing their distinctive odor very soon, most certainly when the March lion turns into a lamb near the end of the month, when all creatures great and small begin their spring mating rituals. In fact, now is the time to consider sealing your porches, decks and sheds because those are great places to raise a raccoon or skunk litter, and once they move in it’s difficult to get rid of them. This is when raccoon bites (always a rabies threat) and skunk encounters (always a smelly event) are most prevalent. Both species can be pests at time, but it wouldn’t be spring without them.
If it were up to the woods’ ubiquitous eternal optimists it would be spring already. Of course, I’m talking about the black-capped chickadee, whose voices I hear every morning as they gather at the edge of the woods in anticipation of raiding my sunflower seed stash. The bolder birds will come in while I am filling the feeder. Some will land on my shoulder and wait for me to finish, which others will perch on my hand and pick the seed of their choice. It takes some time to gain the trust of a chickadee, but once they accept your presence you have a friend for life.
I think the best display of “chickadee love” I’ve ever seen was when Beatrice Lyford invited me to her house on Lyford Hill in Orneville to show me the “chickies.” Beatrice was about 75 at the time, tiny as a mouse but tough as a bear. She’d recently fallen off a ladder while picking apples and was wearing a neck brace, but that didn’t keep her from picking more apples or entertaining her birds.
She made me stand by the house (“They don’t trust strangers,” Beatrice said) while she went out to feed the birds. She whistled a couple of notes and in seconds she was covered with hungry chickadees, 20 of them at least. They landed on her arms, head and shoulders as they took turns feeding out of her seed bucket, and they even stayed with her as she moved around filling the empty feeders.
When I hear the chickadees call now I think of Beatrice, the signs of spring and the promise of warmer weather. It’s right around the corner now – I think we can all agree on that!
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