Birds start foraging for food that will get scarcer in winter
It’s starting to get colder, and for many people this seems to provoke a mowing urge. I must admit that I too have this compulsion. This past weekend, I got out the mower and gave it a final run around the house, and while I did this I started to think about the animals that live at the mercy of the weather.
This idea popped into my mind two weekends ago while I was prepping the area around my woodpile for the stacking that was soon to commence. I caught a movement out of the corner of my eye and discovered a little goldfinch foraging for chicory seeds in an area of lawn that I hadn’t mowed.
Since then I’ve paid a lot of attention to my yard and I’ve been quite pleased to see many birds quietly hunting through the tall grasses. It made me happy to know that I had provided food for the goldfinch by simply not mowing every square inch of the yard.
In addition to the seeds in fields, there are also great quantities of food that can be found in and around the forested areas of the landscape.
Wildlife biologists often refer to these foods as “mast,” and it comes in two basic types.
Hard mast refers to tree nuts and large seeds. Acorns are a great example, but there are also beechnuts, walnuts, hickory nuts and even pine, maple, and ash seeds. These are the sturdy, long-lasting seeds of trees that are meant to survive the winter and sprout as young trees in the spring.
Soft mast refers to grapes, apples, berries and other soft fruits that contain seeds but do not have hard shells. Some kinds of soft mast (like blackberries or raspberries) have very short shelf lives, whereas others can linger on through most of the winter (the waxy, white berries of poison ivy are a great example).
Taken together, the nuts, seeds and berries represent all the food there is going to be until late spring. Birds such as song sparrows will hunker down in one spot and try to eke out a living by carefully exploring their territories and exploiting every possible source of food they can find.
For the sparrows and finches, each stem of long grass, Queen Anne’s lace and smartweed left standing is available food. Anything mowed is lost. For other birds, like cedar waxwings, winter is an endless search for food that may take them on great journeys. Waxwings look for soft mast like cedar berries and crabapples, and they have to keep moving as they eat their way across the landscape.
Then there are forest birds, like wild turkeys, that have to wander through the woods and pick up fallen grapes, acorns and anything else that is edible. Eating and putting on weight is very important for turkeys, because as the snow gets deeper and deeper their access to food is greatly curtailed. Winters with prolonged periods of deep snow can be disastrous for turkeys.
At nature’s mercy
So from now until spring, every day that passes means there is less food for the animals that have remained. They have no ability to influence the amount of food that is available, and many do not have the ability to store food, so they are literally at the mercy of nature.
If you can resist the human urge to cut and “clean,” you may be able to add just a little more food to the larder.
Bill Danielson is a professional nature photographer and author living in Altamont. Contact him at www.speakingofnature.com.