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The new year has come in on the heels of some vicious late-December weather. One major storm per week all month (always, for some reason, on a Sunday) made life miserable for a lot of Mainers with slippery roads, power outages and all the other fun stuff that comes with winter in the Northeast.
Of course, my thoughts always turn to my wild neighbors and how they manage armed with nothing more than instincts and ambition. With all this snow comes lots of shoveling, and while clearing the paths and walkways I found several remnant piles of leaves I’d forgotten (neglected?) to dispose of before the first serious storm. Moving them I uncovered several very forlorn field mice, which had made a winter home inside the leaf piles. They were warm and cozy, no doubt, till the shovel broke through and scattered them to the cold and wind. The sudden intrusion forced the mice to make a dash for the safety of the nearby stone wall, and from the looks of the tiny tracks radiating out from the wall after this last storm I guess the little rodents are faring well.
I have a wood pile outside my door that’s covered with a big, blue tarp, and I try to keep the edges covered with snow to keep the wind from taking the tarp away. Of course, there are always gaps in the snow cover, and some of those mouse tracks led from the stone wall to the wood pile. I rarely see the mice going from the seed pile to the wall or wood, but I know they are there. Every so often I’ll be bringing in wood and find the remnants of a cozy nest made of leaves, bark and other woodpile debris. Overall, I’d say the mice are doing quite well!
In winter I dump a gallon of wildlife grain or corn and sunflower seeds on the ground each day and let the critters help themselves. I keep the spot shoveled out after each storm so the birds and animals can make the most of their foraging. By the next day the “walls” of the feeding area are perforated with tunnels and holes made by gray and red squirrels, mice and flying squirrels. These critters understand their niche at the bottom of the food chain and make every effort to avoid the owls, weasels and foxes that also swing by for a back-yard visit. They’ll sit in the entrance of their tunnels and wait for the opportune moment and then dash out, stuff their cheeks with seeds and disappear under the snow. On days when deer, turkeys, opossums and even raccoons make their rounds the rodents stay out of sight, but their ever-present tunnels give them away.
This year for some reason I have been inundated with opossums. Thought to be hibernators, these prehistoric curiosities have taken up residence under the wood shed and come out most nights to stuff themselves with leftover seed. One night I flipped on the floodlight and there were four big, smiling ‘possums out there, shoulder to shoulder, munching away and showing no signs of fear or caution.
The deer, too, have changed their habits now that snow and ice cover the ground. On a recent snowshoe trek around the farm I discovered the tracks of at least six deer, including their beds, and all were within shouting distance of the house. Three had bedded close enough to touch one of the tree stands I have set up in the woods, and the others bed so close to the main logging trail that it would be impossible to miss them if I hiked past them at the right time.
The trails leading to the grain pile are becoming well-worn and obvious, as if they were made by sheep or cattle. Still shy and cautious, the deer are not wasting energy sneaking around the woods or bounding away in a panic. They bed down a reasonable distance away, come directly into the grain pile, eat their fill and go back to the edge of the woods till it’s time to feed again. I don’t mind feeding them and I make sure they have plenty of grain every day, so my little herd of whitetails should be fine till they disperse next spring. It would be folly to bring them in with grain and then suddenly stop feeding them out of laziness, thrift or disinterest. If you’re going to feed the critters in winter make it a daily habit and keep them supplied throughout, or don’t start feeding them in the first place. Either way, they’ll survive.
The trouble with “bird” feeders is that they attract more than just the small, pretty birds we love to hear and observe. Hawks and owls are birds, too, and when a feeder is busy they will take notice. The same goes for foxes, weasels, coyotes and other furry predators. Over the course of the winter I’ll see all of these, or their sign, near the feeder including, alas, the occasional pile of dove or blue jay feathers where one or another of them made a kill. One year I had a barred owl take up residence in the big oaks along the field edge and he pretty much wiped out the red squirrel population by spring. Such is life in the wild on any given day, and feeding the critters doesn’t necessarily mean they will make it through the winter. The same dynamic occurs when smaller creatures feed on a road-killed deer, rabbit or squirrel – all of the scavengers will take advantage of what they find and some predators will get into the act as well.
Survival is the name of the game from now till spring and, thankfully, enough birds and animals find a way to survive and breed again when warm weather returns. This has been the way of life since life began. I enjoy observing it, sharing it and being a part of it. Imagine how dull winter would be without it!
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