Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010

Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010
Photo by R.E. Berg-Andersson

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Adapting to Winter

The female redbellied woodpecker flies to the house feeder, grabs a black-hulled sunflower seed, then flies the short distance to the pear tree. She climbs up the trunk with the seed in her long bill to the top of one section that has been sawed off flat. She puts the seed on it and pounds until she has broken off the hull and can then grab the seed with her long tongue.

She goes back and forth five or six times to do this as I watch from my enclosed back porch, not too close to the window or I'd scare her. Each time she flies to the feeder she dislodges a young, male cardinal who has been eying the feeder but hanging back while other birds, including two other male cardinals, fly over to get food. She has no interest in the suet feeder nearby. Today, she wants seed.

Finally, the redbelly flies off and the young cardinal flies over and grabs a seed, only to be chased off by a posse of house sparrows.

Female redbellied woodpecker (Margo D. Beller)
At this point I take on my position of omnipotent ruler and tap on the window, scaring the sparrows off and allowing the black-capped chickadees to fly in, grab seeds and fly off. A couple of them go into the upper branches of this same pear tree to grab the seed with their feet and then peck to break the hull and eat.

I've been witnessing this behavior in my backyard for the past 20 or so years every winter. Same routine, different generations of titmice, house finches, jays and white-throated sparrows.

We had a heavy snow last night, and this morning I added to the number of seed feeders because I know it is not going to be easy for the birds to find food. But if I didn't put out a feeder - and I seem to be the only one around in this part of the area hanging feeders - the birds would still find ways of surviving. They're used to it.

They do better than I do. When the snow falls, especially the heavy, wet type we had, my first reaction is to groan. I know I am going to find shrubs bent under the weight and I might find fence posts down because the snow has weighed upon the deer netting. I don't have to worry about feeding myself but I do have to worry about getting groceries in ahead of time or getting the snow plow guy over to clear the driveway before the temperatures fall again in the evening.

Cardinal pair (Margo D. Beller)
I walk around repairing the damage as the birds check for microscopic insects in the branches of the black locust trees over my head.  I hear the sparrows calling from the hedge and the local Canada geese flying overhead. I hear the cardinal pairs calling to one another. A few weeks ago when we had a smaller snow storm but colder temperatures there were six male cardinals in my backyard at once. Today there were three and at least two females. The pecking order - which one eats first, second, etc. - was very much in evidence because only one of the three seed feeders will allow a cardinal to comfortably sit and eat a seed.

As I get older I find myself liking everything about snow less and less. I don't like the shoveling -- it tires me and makes my back sore. I don't like knocking snow off tall hedges and getting it all over me. I don't like depending on the plow guy when there is more than 5 inches of white on the driveway. I do not like the cold at all, and that dislikes gets worse with every falling degree.

It is easy for me to complain because I am bundled in a warm coat and will be going inside a warm house momentarily and can eat when I choose to eat. The birds have to depend on the kindness of strangers - me. I can provide them seed and suet, hedges for roosting at night and, every so often, aid and protection by chasing off cats or raptors. But that's it. They are on their own in the cold and have to depend on puffing themselves up and creating a layer of warm air under their feathers. They will "sleep" in their way to conserve energy to fly and feed the next day in order to survive.

There will still be winter fatalities, just as there are always stories of humans who lose a finger clearing out a snowblower or have heart attacks lifting heavy loads of snow with their shovels.

Today, I'm not one of them. You could say I've learned to adapt, too.