I’m not sure what it is about aging and how these cold, dark winter days and nights seem to get longer each year, but they do. It probably doesn’t help that we’ve had 11 days of subzero temperatures. We humans know what’s happening in our solar system and manage to hang on, based on the knowledge that this old planet is starting to tilt and the sun is oh so slowly on its return to our region. So we have a psychological advantage over the birds and animals.
Recently a local newspaper publisher wrote about how his dogs don’t seem to have caught on to this whole daylight savings time thing. They look at him at 4:30 p.m. and want to know when they’re going to be fed. It’s dark after all. The morning is a similar situation – ‘why do we have to wait so long to be fed?’
This made me think more about the birds and how difficult their lives become with the brief daylight period shortening their opportunities to feed by four hours, plus adding temperatures that are mostly below freezing for five months. When we’re feeling sorry for ourselves being cooped up inside or forced to brave the winter winds and snow as we scurry to our heated vehicles, we really should take a look at the little chickadees fluttering from the bird feeder to the shrubs and count our blessings.
Ever since the last glaciers left the northern regions a small number of birds have evolved so that they can actually survive and prosper under these difficult conditions. They are not water birds (herons, cranes) or fowl (ducks and geese); they are instead birds that have found a way to get enough calories from seeds, cones, berries and insects. None of these items are as easy to come by in the winter months as they are in summer, but the species that stick around have managed to find enough to pull them through.
Insects are in larval form, tucked beneath the bark of trees – but woodpeckers have developed sharp, hard beaks and long, curled tongues to extract them. Old, dead trees are especially valuable for woodpeckers, since they are rich in these tiny protein packages. I just recently learned that Downy Woodpeckers will look for old goldenrod plants with the bulbous galls on their stems. Hidden inside is a small worm. The woodpeckers extract these, leaving a neat little hole in the gall.
Berries will hang into winter on the branches of mountain ash, flowering crabs, cherries, and winterberry shrubs. Cedar and Bohemian Waxwings, as well as Pileated Woodpeckers and occasionally a Robin or two will focus on these resources.
Crossbills (both Red and White-winged) search the forests for pine cones (from spruce trees in particular). They have evolved a strange, crossed beak that is perfectly designed to pry the ‘nuts’ from between the scales of the cones; Lots of calories in these seeds – just like those they can get from hulled sunflower seeds
Then there are all the grasses, trees and shrubs that hang on to their seeds throughout most of the winter – providing the smaller birds (finches, sparrows, juncos, nuthatches and chickadees) with a constant supply of food.
Birds will use all of these resources in their non-stop quest to stay warm and alive, with the extra burden of needing to consume enough to get them through the nearly 16 hours of darkness at this point of the year. I try to imagine them clustered together in a tree cavity or nest box, shivering to create body warmth. The smallest birds can actually use one another in this helpful way, but larger birds like the Blue Jays, Woodpeckers and Mourning Doves will seek shelter in conifers and depend upon their layers of feathers to protect them through the night. If you have ever winter camped, you know how long the nights can be and appreciate the lifesaving qualities of a down sleeping bag. I have done this kind of camping, but never enjoyed it, so my empathy for the birds is great.
That’s why bird feeding throughout the winter is so rewarding. We know we’re giving them a boost through these months – an extra chance at surviving. My husband is always conscientious about getting out early to fill the feeders each morning. Now that he is recovering from knee replacement surgery, that task has fallen to me and I admit that I am not as likely to get out as early as he would. I picture the birds, like the publisher’s dogs, looking towards the house and wondering what’s taking us so long. If you are feeding the birds – keep it up and know you are doing them a true service.
By Kate Crowley