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Snow or not, cold or not, it’s winter in Maine now. Always keeping a curious eye on the habits and behaviors of my wild neighbors, I find it most interesting that they seem to change survival modes by adapting to the length of the day rather than the temperature or snow depth.
Historically, it’s been a warm winter (November was the warmest on record and December was nearly so) and yet I found that the deer dutifully disappeared into their traditional wintering areas despite the fact that there was no snow, temperatures were relatively high and there was plenty of food on the ground. I found numerous places where acorns were inches deep under towering oaks, corn left unpicked in the fields and succulent green pastures, none showing any sign of regular or consistent deer activity.
Having seen this phenomenon in states where “winter” is a dirty word as well as in milder climes in the South and Mid-West, I have to guess that deer simply fatten up in fall and coast through the winter on their body fat. They may venture into the open at night and browse a little here and there, but if you want to see whitetails during the day you must go into the thickest cover you can find. Even then, the normally wide-ranging animals stick to dense growth like rabbits, running only to the edge of the thick stuff and running right back in when danger threatens.
I have spent part of every day this winter visiting the woods in my never-ending quest to unravel the mysteries of the wild things and find something new, surprising or overlooked on every trip. Turkey hunters, for example, are familiar with the big birds’ penchant for roosting in tall trees at night, coming down to feed during the day and then returning to their roost at sunset. This is quite typical for most of the year, but for a few weeks in winter, at least, turkeys are more likely to feed heavily for a period and then spend two or three days safely roosted, not leaving the trees for a surprisingly long time. I once saw a flock of about 30 birds fly into the highest limbs of a stand of hilltop oaks on a Friday evening during a cold, snow-less spell. I could see their black forms from my office window and kept a close eye on them the entire weekend. They did not leave the trees till Monday morning – even though the skies were clear and could easily have found something to eat in the frozen leaves below.
I have seen the same thing happen with squirrels, which may stay in their dens for several days; and grouse, which may roost in a thick hemlock or (when snow depths allow) dive into the white stuff where it’s warm and quiet. Whenever a period of rain follows a snowfall I think about those snowbound grouse and whether they will be able to peck their way out of their icy prisons. Come spring, I’ve found piles of bones and feathers on the ground, mute evidence that some, sadly, did not.
Though some who feed the birds through the winter may argue the point, I’ve found that the vast majority of chickadees, juncos, blue jays and sparrows stay in the woods all winter, eking out a living on the seeds and insects that they find under leaves, bark and fallen trees.
A few days ago I went out to sit in the woods and, as usual my intrusion caused a momentary silence as the critters paused to see what I was about. When they finally resumed their normal foraging activities, I was amazed at the number and variety of birds and animals that were within 100 feet of my position. In the next hour I saw a dozen gray squirrels and two rabbits; several large flocks of ground birds as well as titmice, blue jays, nuthatches, doves and woodpeckers; and a steady parade of geese, crows and ravens. The noise level was astonishing – all were busily feeding and seemed oblivious to each other even though their paths and patterns overlapped as they scoured the ground, trees and rocks in search of food.
What I enjoy most about these little outdoor adventures is that once I’m sitting quietly and the woods come back to life, I am tolerated if not welcomed by the wild populace. Chickadees and nuthatches come close enough to touch, and the others dig and scratch around me as if I were a member of the flock. A few are curious, some are suspicious but all of them allow me enough space to have my tea and occasionally raise my binoculars for a closer look. As long as I show no aggression they stay focused on the task of surviving the winter. I mean them no harm and they seem to sense that, although when it’s time for me to go they give me ample space – even tolerance has its limits!
Viewed through a salty windshield while rushing to and from the demands of life in our world, the cold, snowy woods seem empty and desolate. The periphery often is just that, with nothing to be seen along the noisy roadside but a lonely crow, raven or fox; maybe a set of deer tracks leading straight across a field into the faded evergreens beyond. Follow that trail, however, and it will lead you to a surprising number of other winter wanderers whose meandering tracks and trails mix, mingle and overlap in direct proportion to the distance traveled away from “civilization.”
Get out there away from the roads, the houses, the cars and the noise and you will find a much different world than the one you are used to. Even if you limit your investigation to the easier paths and logging trails you will find evidence of a busy wild community, with everything from mice to moose leaving proof of their existence for one and all to see.
The farther into the wilds you go the more tracks and sign you will find, and don’t be surprised if some of them are mine!
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