Learning Winter Survival Techniques from Nature

January 17, 2009

January is the heart of darkness. The current spate of arctic weather brings winter survival into sharp focus. On our farm, the morning routine of hauling water, grain and hay to the sheep barn and to the chicken coop is followed by the ritual re-filling of the birdfeeders and perhaps a quick walk on the woodlot.

Only the hardiest native birds remain in our deep forest neighborhood by January. Cheerful chickadees, feisty gold finches and prehistoric-looking wild turkeys visit the front porch sunflower feeders each day. They’re joined by a pair of tufted titmice, white-breasted nuthatches and occasional pine siskins. Rarely, we see purple finches, juncos and blue jays. But that’s it. No suburban cardinals, house finches or mourning doves. No city pigeons or house sparrows.

You have to admire the tiny, tough winter birds. Adaptations allow them to remain year-round residents. These natives use metabolic tricks such as controlled shivering to warm muscles and fluffing downy feathers to create air space in their plumage to cope with extreme cold in northern climes. Their weed seed and waste grain diet spares them the risks and energy expense of migrating south when insect protein is unavailable in winter. Chickadees, titmice and nuthatches nest “indoors” in hollow tree cavities which lets them to breed earlier in spring than the “outdoor” nest builders which arrive later to build nests and eat insects. In short, winter resident birds are resourceful, frugal Yankees. Like you, they tough-it-out out rather than winter in Florida.

Sharing the front porch stage beneath the birdfeeders are wild turkeys, a bachelor flock of eight males, bearded old toms and young jakes. A sorority flock of twenty to thirty hens also visits occasionally. The hens live down in the South Sutton village along the Lane River. We recognize one tom we’ve named “Hoppy.” His ankle doesn’t flex due to an unknown injury. He can’t run, he hobbles but he sure can fly. This is his second winter on our farm. The toms visit the front porch hourly throughout the day to clean-up spilled sunflower seed hulls. They pick grit in the road scraped clean by the snowplow. They till-up oak leaves from the roadside ditches, stopping rural traffic – such as it is.

After filling bird feeders, my morning routine includes a walk on the woodlot along a network of skidder trails. There are more red oak acorns in the woods this winter compared to last. Consequently, squirrels haven’t been a nuisance the birdfeeders. Acorns are eagerly sought by gray squirrels, turkeys and deer. Deer staff the night shift, pawing though patches of oak leaves where turkeys tilled acorns from beneath the shallow snow during the day. Deer and turkeys flatten the snow pack under apple trees where lingering windfalls cling to the branches, a time-release frozen fruit dispenser. The decent hemlock cone seed crop occupies industrious little red squirrels which have well-stocked conifer seed pantries beneath the snow.

Fresh tracks above the snow now reveal where winter fur-bearers are hunting, feeding, sleeping and beginning to seek mates. Foxes and coyotes hunt mice, fishers follow squirrels, a bobcat stalks snowshoe hare territories, and the deer – lots of deer – are evidently well-fed this winter too.

The deer are drawn to the logging slash and brush piles where fresh-cut red oak and white birch twigs provide nutritious buds that are like cheesecake compared to the drab cod liver pate’ diet of hemlock bark in the deeryard. With snow depth now more than halfway up deer forelegs, they’ve stopped wasting energy by wandering in search of food and return nightly to reliable natural feeding sites: logging slash, hardwood browse, acorns and windfall apples, just as the turkeys return daily to the porch.

I like to think that Saint Francis of Assisi, patron saint of animals, fondly regards what small winter kindness I can bestow on the animals that inhabit my farm and the surrounding woods. The black oil sunflower seed bill will be paid in full with spring birdsong. Indeed just this past week, the chickadees began the two-note prelude to what will become a swelling symphony as days grow noticeably longer, if not warmer, in the next few weeks.