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I like to go into the woods every few days just to see what the critters are doing out there, but it’s nearly as interesting to see what’s NOT going on. Following the relentless cold and snow events we’ve endured over the last month or so I’ve noticed a definite shift in animal behavior that suggests that we humans are not the only ones being affected by the evil arctic vortex (the new buzz word among TV meteorologists).
For example, I have not seen a single wild turkey since before Thanksgiving. Last year at this time I had close to 50 birds in my yard every day, often twice a day, and my feed bill was incredible. They were eating two or three gallons of seed per day, plus wildlife grain, corn and whatever else I had on hand. This year, not one turkey has stopped in. I’m hoping it’s merely their way of coping with the snow and cold. Perhaps they are staying close to farms where they can pick away at the manure pile without risking their lives traveling hither and yon through the woods, where hungry predators lurk at every turn.
Sadly, I think the issue is more profound than that. Last summer I began to notice that some of “my” birds were affected by a virus that caused huge, wart-like lesions to appear on the bird’s heads and legs. One jake had it so bad he was blind, deaf and could not close his beak to eat. I was able to approach to within five feet of him without his notice, and when he moved off he bumped into my deck, the chicken coop and the stone pile in the back yard. When he went to roost in the evening he kept falling back to the ground because he could not see the limbs he needed to land upon. He disappeared shortly after, no doubt becoming a meal for a passing coyote, fox or bobcat, but not too long afterwards I noticed hens and another jake with the same disease. I was gone most of October, November and December on hunting trips but between jaunts I saw fewer and fewer turkeys each day. Now there are none, and their absence is noticeable. By the way, the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife knows about the virus, which seems to affect turkeys in the Eastern U.S., and is monitoring the situation. If you are seeing similarly affected birds in your area you can log onto the MDIFW’s Web site for an update.
Another common back-yard visitor that I no longer see (or hear) is crows. They were the first ones up in the morning and the last ones to head for the roost at night but for several months now I have not seen or heard a crow, which is very unusual. A few days ago, however, I did see a large flock of perhaps 100 crows roosting in a swampy area several miles away, but “my” local flock has been absent for some time. I don’t know if the same virus that’s affecting the turkeys is to blame, but for some reason neither species has been around for quite some time.
The list of absentees is distressingly long this winter. I have not seen the first grouse (or any signs of them) this winter, and I have yet to cut the first hare track. I make it a point to visit swamps, alder stands and cedar copses in my treks, places where snowshoe hares have been abundant in years past, but this year – not a one. State biologists blame “lack of habitat” for the noticeable decline in small game species, especially in the southern half of the state, but there are pockets of suitable habitat where birds and rabbits should be but are not. “Edge cover,” or early successional habitat (call it brush, saplings and other thick stuff) may be found here and there but not the small game species that once inhabited those areas. The issue may be a statewide one because on two moose hunts this fall (totaling 1,700 miles of riding the roads) I saw a mere handful of grouse and exactly one snowshoe hare. Granted, that wasn’t a scientific study and I’m sure there were plenty of critters out there I did not see, but one would think that in all those miles of slow, cautious driving we’d have seen more than a single rabbit! We saw more mice and red squirrels crossing the road than we saw rabbits. I’m surprised and concerned because, in years past, I drove those same roads and had to dodge coveys of grouse and rabbits were around every turn. Come to think of it, on one moose hunt we saw only one deer track, and on another we saw four deer the first day and not one the rest of the week.
Also lacking this winter are evening grosbeaks, those black-and-yellow seed vacuums that used to swarm around my feeders and devour a kettle full of sunflower seeds in one sitting. Not a one has showed up this year nor have I seen any in two or three winters.
Of course, all of these observations are the culmination of one fan’s occasional strolls in the woods. It may be that others are seeing huge numbers of turkeys, grouse, rabbits, crows and other critters where I have not seen any. I look for them and make note of them because I’ve always been interested in wildlife, so their absence makes me wonder what’s going on out there. Habitat changes, temperature variations, population fluctuations and a host of other things can influence the abundance, or lack of, a given species. I just find it interesting that whatever’s going on out there is affecting so many different birds and animals. I keep seed and suet on hand throughout the winter and always have, but I’m not having the variety or numbers of visitors I used to see. I hope the answer is that they like your bird feeder better than mine, but I have a feeling that it’s not quite that simple. I don’t know where all my wild friends have gone but I do wish they’d come back!
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