A week of below-zero temperatures has made life interesting for Maine’s human population, but I’ve also noticed plenty of surprises in the animal world since the thermometer last registered above freezing.
Most noticeable at my house is that nearly all of my wintering birds have decided life is better lived under my front porch. Each morning I go out to dribble a little bird seed on the porch railing and on the ground (snow) beside it. The instant I open the storm door there’s a rush of wings as juncos, mourning doves, blue jays, finches, chickadees and woodpeckers pour out between the slats of the lattice work under my feet. I would not have thought that so many different species would get along well enough to spend the night huddled together, particularly the doves and blue jays, which are not particularly tolerant of their neighbors.
The entire flock of mixed species swoops out across the field, swings back and lands in the oaks in the front yard, all waiting patiently for me to go back inside so they can begin their day’s foraging. I don’t mind that they can’t tolerate my presence (it’s good for their survival to trust their instincts) but I have made it a habit to count the seconds between when I go inside and when they fly down, and lately it has been less than a three-count.
The same goes for stocking the feeders in the back yard, which are farther from the house and require some effort to approach and fill. On a normal day I will carry four buckets of cracked corn and sunflower seed plus two cakes of suet to the site, and it takes me a few minutes to distribute the stuff to make it more attractive to the birds and less likely to be wasted.
Generally, it’s the birds that get along best throughout the day, although there’s the usual hierarchy that runs from the biggest to the smallest species. On any given day the wild turkeys will come running down the ridge from their roosting site and devour several pounds of seed in a sitting. Behind them come the blue jays, which tend to drive other birds away till they are finished, and then doves (much more tolerant), juncos, nuthatches, finches and the rest.
It may seem odd, perhaps impossible, but I have a group of blue birds that are still using the feeders, primarily the suet baskets, even with close to two feet of snow on the ground and temperatures well below zero at night. In fact, the blue birds are among the first to queue up for breakfast in the morning. I see them now and again throughout the day as well. I know folks who doubt me, don’t believe me or find it shocking that blue birds remain in Maine through the winter. While I can’t state the case for all blue birds, I know that “my” little flock is here right now and, with luck, will remain here all winter. I have caught them roosting in the wood shed (I keep the doors open at night during good weather), and I try not to disturb them when I go out for firewood or kindling. I have not heard them singing yet, but I suppose it’s in the nature of the blue bird to sing less in winter when it’s cold, snowy and windy – not exactly “blue bird weather,” at least not in the poetic sense.
Other new cold-season visitors to the back yard include crows (a dozen of them show up at dawn to glean what they can of the spilled seed and grain) and so far I’ve had a pair of pileated woodpeckers drop in for a look around at least once a day. They are most interested in the remains of some deer blocks I’d put out last fall, a weird mix of molasses, corn and whatever else goes into them. Deer, oddly enough, showed no interest in the blocks but turkeys, porcupines, squirrels and blue jays seem quite interested in them.
Fortunately, I received the blocks as free samples and figured I’d try them but thus far they have generated little interest. I know that deer, rabbits, raccoons and other critters in other states are quite fond of these blocks but in my area of Maine they are not worth the trouble. The blocks are heavy, expensive and disintegrate into a mucky mess in short order – try them if you wish but don’t expect great things from them.
I also noticed a remarkable change in the number of woodpeckers, flickers and other suet-eaters when I changed from “woodpecker treat” suet cakes to the standard “seed cakes” I’d been using. I was given a case of the former as a gift and thought it might be more appealing but, alas, they seemed to repel more birds than they attracted. Because of this they lasted longer but I was glad to see the last one go. Now I’m back to seed cakes and all the birds seem happy about it.
I did notice a shift in bird appearances way back in August when the last of the hurricanes swept through the Northeast. It seemed as though the harsh weather blew the birds away – for whatever reason the number of species and individuals declined precipitously during the late summer and fall. Since the first cold weather and heavy snow in mid-December it seems that the gang is back in full force. In fact, I have noticed dozens more juncos than normal, plus doves and blue jays seem to have multiplied noticeably since hard times befell them.
Oddly enough I have seen very few deer in the back yard. In fact, I have seen more porcupines, raccoons and opossums than I have whitetails. I know from my snowshoe treks that the deer are out there. On the bright side, they are not bothering my fruit trees, either, so I’m not going to complain about that. As if it would do me any good!