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Harsh as this winter has been (a record-setter no less), we are about to enter that nebulous part of the year called “spring,” when lake ice turns to slush, warm temperatures turn the dooryard to mud and our fragile road system begins to crumble. Already portions of favorite shortcuts are full of potholes and frost heaves. It’s better to stay on the main roads and take the long way around or risk losing a hubcap or muffler in the process.
Fortunately, I get to chronicle what’s going on beyond the highways and byways and, as always, things are as they should be “out there.” I find it amusing that our wild neighbors waste no time in wringing their hands or gnashing their teeth over the ups and downs of late winter weather. They have a simple daily plan: avoid danger, find food, survive the day. No matter how cold or snowy it may be it’s business as usual for our furred and feathered friends. They are surprisingly adept at meeting their simple goals and it’s quite interesting to watch how they do it.
My feeder is essentially in the middle of a 10-acre field with woods all around. There are stone walls, a few blueberry bushes, briar patches and assorted saplings inside the clearing, but for the most part it is wide open – not a good thing for small birds and animals that worry about predators that may appear from above, below and everywhere in between. None of the critters that come in to enjoy the free seed and corn makes a bee-line for it. Instead, the game is one of escape and evade. Sweet as they are, even the chickadees don’t trust anything with fangs or talons. They flit from tree to tree along the entire edge of the hay field, working their way slowly from branch to branch until at last they arrive safely under the eaves. They’ll spend as much time getting there as they do feeding, selecting one seed at a time, flying away to eat it on a nearby maple limb and then flying down for another, always taking their turn and never bullying the other birds. The chickadees are the most accommodating of all, patient and forgiving, happy to let the bigger, more aggressive birds take their share of the endless bounty of sunflower seeds, cracked corn and other goodies.
They leave the same way, taking the long way around and heading back to spend the better part of the day in the hemlocks on the hill.
The blue jays are a sight to see with their noisy, colorful arrival just after sunrise, but they, too, are shy about exposing themselves in the open field. Though the arrive in a large flock they invariably cross the open field one at a time, and then swarm the feeder as one, bullying all the smaller birds and even the red squirrels out of the way.
Speaking of squirrels, I have had as many as nine of them on the ground at once in recent weeks, but every one of them comes in from the open oak stand above the field. With all the snow we’ve had it’s been easy to sit by the window and watch them, alone or in pairs, work their way down the ridge through the hardwoods, along the stone wall and among the briars, each one avoiding the open field like the plague. At times the pairs will chase each other for short distances along the way but when one of the squirrels realizes it’s headed for the snow-covered field he quickly turns and heads back for the woods.
The same goes for the cardinals, titmice, nuthatches and creepers that visit every day. None will fly directly across the field (the shortest distance) because they know the risk is too high. I don’t know how they know this, but they are right, because all this activity does not go unnoticed. I see it as an amusing pastime but not so the weasels, foxes, coyotes and, of late, red-tailed hawks and barn owls that now seem to be ominously abundant. It’s not unusual for me to look out across the field and see a hawk or owl perched high in a maple or oak near the field. In fact, these winged predators must be getting desperate because more than once I’ve seen them sitting stoically on a fence post or bluebird box just a few yards from my window.
Hunting in the open like that doesn’t seem to be very productive for them, no doubt because the smaller critters instantly take notice. The red squirrels notice them first. Their excited chatter warns one and all that danger is afoot and for a few minutes there is no activity outside the window. The red squirrels are relentlessly noisy and soon the birds move on, but they are never far away and the prey species know it.
I have seen evidence that the hawks and owls do hit the jackpot once in a while. It seems that the hawk prefers mourning doves with blue jays close behind, at least judging by the streams of feathers I find on the ground near the seed pile. The barn owls prefer heavier, meatier prey; now and again I’ll find evidence in the snow where a red or gray squirrel was not quite quick enough to escape.
The night critters (deer, coyotes, foxes and bobcats chief among them) have no qualms about crossing the open field after dark, but of course they are least likely to be attacked in such a setting. The deer are too timid to be fooled by the large predators’ furtive approach, and in fact I’ve spent most of the winter following the tracks of all the players and have yet to find evidence of a successful assault. Soon the snow will become crumbly and crusty, making travel more difficult for the heavier whitetails, but once the “lamb” of March finally arrives they will be more able to elude pursuers with ill intent.
Cold and snow notwithstanding it’s business as usual out there. Take it one day at a time, don’t project, be careful, survive the day. If it’s good advice for a chickadee, it’s good advice for us as well!
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