Winter is for the birds

Female Cardinal

By Bruce Stambaugh

I am of the opinion that winter is for the birds. I mean that literally.

Watching the backyard birds enjoy the variety of foodstuffs at the feeders is my winter’s entertainment. The various kinds of feeders are stocked with an assortment of options for the birds to devour, and are placed for safe access by the birds and convenient observation by me.

In the feeding frenzy, the birds put on quite a show.

Several kinds of birds enjoy the spoils of the tube feeder filled with sunflower hearts. The feeder hangs in front of the kitchen window and can accommodate six birds at a time, if all goes well. However, just like people, birds get greedy and guard their territory, even though there is plenty for everybody.

The American Goldfinches seem to be the best behaved, often feeding in families around the feeder’s cardinal ring. It’s named that so that cardinals can enjoy the seeds, too. Cardinals normally prefer a flat surface or the ground for feeding. But occasionally the bright red males and reddish tinged olive females will take advantage of their namesake.

Despite their bright coloration and moderate size, cardinals tend to be skittish creatures and fly off at the first hint of trouble. A few of the cardinals prefer the cracked corn that is spread at the base of the sugar maple. But so does the feisty Song Sparrow, which easily scares off the bigger bird. Using its clawed feet, the Song Sparrow jump kicks at the seed, even though it wouldn’t have to. Hereditary habits are hard to change.

Other sparrows show their faces as well, especially if the ground is snow-covered. The pretty Tree Sparrow, with its distinctive yellow bottom bill, joins the feast along with the showy White-crowned Sparrow. The latter is one of the few species that sings in the winter. Their beautiful tune can warm even the coldest day.

The real fun begins when the acrobatic nuthatches, Chickadees and Tufted Titmice arrive, which they often do simultaneously. I am fortunate to have both White-breasted and Red-breasted Nuthatches, a first for me, coming to the feeders. They are the only birds that move headfirst down the trunk of a tree.

These birds take full advantage of the menu offered at the feeders. If the black oil sunflower seeds aren’t available, they might enjoy some extra protein that the suet provides. Or they might savor a hulled peanut.

All these birds give way when the bully Blue Jays appear. They loudly announce their arrival, and scatter the other birds with their arrogant intrusion. The jays gulp down a gullet full of seeds before flying off with their meal.

An even bossier bird is the Red-bellied Woodpecker. It wants to dine alone while partaking of the smorgasbord offerings, especially enjoying the peanuts. But they can be finicky, too. The next trip in the same bird may hit the ear corn.

Perhaps my favorite visitors are the Eastern Bluebirds, normally not noted as feeder birds. They do enjoy the brilliant holly berries right from the bush out front, but they also have been seen imbibing at the suet and sunflower feeders.

There are times, though, when the birds just don’t show up at all. It’s then that I know that perched nearby is the neighborhood Cooper’s Hawk, which loves a songbird lunch.

Occasionally I know that the swift hawk has enjoyed my feeders, too, at least indirectly. A pile of House Finch feathers atop the snow provides the proof.

Female Red-bellied Woodpecker

Finding the fountain of youth

The historically maligned Ponce de Leon was actually
well ahead of his time. That’s what I concluded
after a wintertime visit to Florida.

I have three adorable grandchildren,
proof enough that I am no spring chicken.
I won’t mention the other obvious aging clues.
While on my tour of the Sunshine state,
visited so long ago by the Spanish explorer,
I stumbled upon exactly what he was looking for.

The fountain of youth really does exist.
No matter where I went, a store, a restaurant,
a theater, even the beach, the result was the same.
I was the youngest one in the crowd.
Where admission was charged, I received the youth rate,
while everyone else got the senior discount.

I discovered what the conquistador could not.
In Florida, 62 is the new 16.
Poor Ponce was at the right place, wrong time.

Bruce Stambaugh

Feb. 4, 2010

Tracks in the snow

Wing prints from the red-tailed hawk

By Bruce Stambaugh

I love when snow covers the dormant winter ground. The beauty is enhanced when the blanket is refreshed with daily snowfalls the way it was earlier in the month.

Snow illuminates everything, even at night. The defused light of a waning moon can still glitter the landscape like a mirror to the stars. A glowing sunrise, a rarity in the normally dreary Ohio January sky, sparkles the morning countryside all around.

The unbroken whiteness seems to connect everything it has touched. It softens the harshest angles of any nondescript building and compliments the already lovely evergreen bows with inches of powdery beauty.

The view beckons me outside. But I hate to make tracks in the snow. I don’t want to do anything that pollutes the purity of the picture perfect scene. Suddenly, the rumbling of the snowplow shakes me from my idealistic stupor. Reality is calling.

The birdfeeders need attended to, the sidewalk and parking pad must be shoveled. Disturbing the beauty isn’t an option. The garbage can has to be wheeled to the roadside and I need to replenish my inside stack of firewood. All of these activities require me to do what I do not want to do. I have to break the virgin snow.

I bundle up much like I did when I was a kid readying to go sledding. Only these endeavors fit the chore category. Still, I get to be out in the invigorating elements.

It doesn’t take long to realize my naivety. Other creatures have been out and about well ahead of me. Bird tracks are evident at the garage door. I didn’t even hear them knock. Rabbit tracks are obvious. Even deer have visited the yard.

Still, I step respectfully, trying hard to bother as little snow as possible. On repeat trips, I retrace my previous tracks. The cottontails seemed to have the same rule.

I feel forgiven for my obsessive/compulsive behavior. Every now and then, while I am doing something mundane, I witness something extraordinary. Recently while retrieving the morning paper from its plastic delivery tube, I found a rabbit flattened on the road.

I mercifully tossed it into the snow near the low bush at the end of the driveway. Later that day, I spied a red-tailed hawk sitting on the snow beneath the bare canopy of the sunburst locust tree in the front yard. The bird flew off before I could take its picture.

Curious, I went out to see why it had been on the snowy ground instead of perched in its usual roost in the pine thicket. I couldn’t believe what I found. The hawk had pounced on the dead rabbit and repeatedly tried lifting off with it. Evidence of that deduction was a crooked path that led away from the roadside shrub where I had pitched the deceased to the locust tree.

There in the snow, on each side of the furrowed trail, was a series of periodic wing imprints. They reminded me of the snow angels we used to make as kids. I must have discovered the beautiful raptor while resting from its numerous futile efforts of trying to get the frozen bunny airborne. Instead, it dragged its catch through the snow.

A closer look revealed that the hawk had begun to tear the rabbit apart, apparently hungry enough to cancel its instinctive routine of capture, fly, perch and eat.

Next day I returned to the scene of the crime. The rabbit was gone. Spots of blood stained the snow. No other tracks of any kind were apparent. The wily bird must have returned to claim it’s prized meal.

I learned an important lesson. Tracks in the snow tell dramatic stories.