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With all the snow of late one might think we were deep in the throes of winter, but our furred and feathered wild neighbors will have none of it. Those who were brought up on Disney’s fanciful portrayal of wildlife and all the joys (and songs!) of springtime nesting may be surprised to find that many common wildlife species begin their mating chores as early as February. Many are through the worst of the familial chores well before the first chorus of “Zip-a-Dee-doo-dah” begins echoing through the forest in spring.
Most fortunate, perhaps, are the black bear cubs that were born in the dead of winter, now frisking around in their dens while their mother tries to sleep another 40 winks till spring. I’ve been in the dens of wintering black bears and found the conditions to be quite cozy – warm and snug, well insulated from the bitter weather raging just outside the den entrance. The cubs are often full of life, wide awake and looking for trouble, and while the sow’s eyes are often open she’s (luckily) too sleepy to challenge the inquisitive biologists who have come to poke and pester her and her family. Such visits are short and sweet, and before long the den is quiet again.
Our resident canine predators (foxes and coyotes) are also busy this month with the next generation of omnivores. Gray and red foxes will be having their pups later this month or in March, while coyotes will begin having their (much larger) litters soon as well. Proof of this shows up on my back yard trail cam, which showed pairs of red and gray foxes coming in to feed together a month ago. The grays are frequent visitors to the sunflower and wildlife grain piles, and I like to take at least partial credit for their beautifully thick, prime coats. The reds are not so fond of grains and seed but do swing by in hopes of catching a squirrel, mouse, dove or chickadee with its guard down. So far there have been no known fatalities among the feeder visitors. It’s only when feral cats decide to come calling that I find feathers, fur and spots of blood in the snow.
Raccoons and opossums begin their mating rituals now, too, though their young will not show up till mid-April or May. Soon we’ll see the subtle signs of the approaching spring (we don’t miss those early clues and neither do they!), including the sudden appearance of ‘coons and possums dead on the roadside, mute evidence that mating, not traffic, was on their minds!
It may be hard to imagine but some of our secretive owl species will begin mating this month even though spring is far away at least from an egg-hatching perspective. Stand in the dooryard around sunset and you’re likely to hear the competitive, territorial hoots of great horned owls, barred owls and maybe a screech owl or two, all proclaiming their dominance at a time when dominance is all that matters to prospective mates. If you live near dense evergreen stands, listen in the dark for the weird, whistling call of the saw-whet owl. The sound carries so well that the bird could easily be behind you, in front of you or even an arm’s length away – its acoustics are that good. It’s often possible to approach a singing saw-whet owl (which stand about 6 inches tall and fly like wind-up toys) to within a few feet. Shine a bright light in their eyes and you can literally walk over and pick one up. Every so often you’ll notice an owl-under-glass display (now illegal to make or own) and it’s likely that the preserved predator was picked up at night and taken to the taxidermist for mounting.
All that whistling, of course, is meant to attract mates and show other saw-whets who’s boss, though it may be hard for us humans to take these miniature owls seriously. Mice and small birds may see things differently, of course.
At this time of year all of our wild friends are as anxious as we are to see the coming of spring. Blue birds, robins and other popular songsters are waiting in the dense evergreens to make their appearance. There’s nothing to sing about right now, but in just a few weeks when the last corner of winter has been turned, they will all come out and rejoice right along with us.
Bears, chipmunks, ground hogs and other hibernators may note care much about what’s going on in the woods right now, and every new snowfall will keep them huddled up that much longer. I never know what I’m going to see when I don my snowshoes and head out for the afternoon, but I know there will be something to see, consider and report if I walk far enough and stay out long enough. The most recent storm ended rather abruptly around midnight and by morning I noticed a pair of tracks at the far end of the pasture. Could it be deer, a fox or coyote? Can’t tell from the kitchen window, which means I need to investigate before the next storm obliterates the sign.
I love to be the first one into the woods after a fresh snowfall. Soon there will be skiers, snowmobilers and ATV riders enjoying the trails, but until then I have the woods and the pathways all to myself. It’s a pleasure to be out there, trekking through the deep snow, enjoying the peace and quiet and seeing the clues the critters have left for me to decipher. After more than 60 winters I am still curious, enthusiastic and sometimes surprised at what I find out there. An unexpected moose track, owl pellet or otter trail will keep me busy for hours, wondering what went on, where the animal came from and where it went . . . it’s all so much more satisfying than most typical indoor diversions.
Go out, go see. You never know what interesting discoveries are waiting for you!
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