Bird Study – The Birds In Winter

WITH the approach of winter the country loses its charm for many people. The blossoms and verdure, so common yet so beloved by all, have departed, and only the brown expanses of dead grass and weeds relieve the blackness of the forest trees. Even ardent nature lovers have been known to forsake their walks at this season when the songs of the birds have ceased and the forest boughs give forth only sobs and shrieks as they sway to the strength of the north winds.

A Good Time for Field Walks.—Nevertheless winter is a good time for the bird student to go afield. If the wild life is less abundant, so is the human life, and you have the country almost to yourself. If you but say in your heart, “I will go and see what may be found,” you will later rejoice, for with the falling of the leaves many of Nature’s secrets, which she has jealously guarded through the summer months, stand revealed. Among the naked branches of the briars you may find the Catbird’s nest which defied all search last June. It will be a comfort to learn that the bird really did have a nest just about the place you thought it was located. Many other pleasing surprises await you in the winter woods.

The Downy’s Winter Quarters.—One late autumn day I stopped to watch a Junco feeding among some weed stalks near a hillside trail. After remaining motionless for a minute or two I became conscious of a light muffled tapping somewhere near by. I t did not take long to locate the sound. On the underside of a slanting decayed limb, twenty feet above, was a new, well-rounded hole perhaps an inch in diameter. Even as I looked the occupant came to the entrance and threw out a bilIful of small chips. When these fell, I saw that the dead leaves on the earth beneath had been well sprinkled by previous ejections of the same nature. I had discovered a Downy Woodpecker at work on his winter bedroom, and later I had reason to believe that he made this his nightly retreat during the cold months that followed.

Chancing to pass this way one dark cloudy morning, it occurred to me to look and see if he had yet left his bed. Striking the limb near the hole I was rewarded by seeing a little black-and-white head poked out inquiringly. Fearing he might be resentful if such treatment were repeated, I never afterward disturbed my little neighbour while he was taking his morning nap. But I had learned this much, that one Downy at least sometimes liked to be abed on cold mornings. Perhaps he knew that there was no early worm about at this season.

Birds and the Night.—It may be that others of our winter birds also make excavations for sleeping quarters; the Chickadee and Nuthatch very probably do so, although I have never found them thus engaged. It is well known that many small birds creep into holes to pass the night. Old nesting places of Woodpeckers are thus again rendered useful, and many of the natural cavities of trees contain, during the hours of darkness, the little warm, pulsating bodies of birds.

Quails invariably roost on the ground regardless of the time of year, or the prevailing weather conditions. An entire covey numbering sometimes twelve or fifteen will settle for the night in a compact circular group with heads pointed outward. When a heavy snow falls they are completely buried, and then if a hard crust forms before morning their roosting place becomes their tomb. Grouse now and then are trapped in the same way, but their superior strength enables them to break through and escape. In fact, these larger birds often deliberately go to roost beneath the snow, breaking through the crust by a swift plunging dive from the air. Bearing these facts in mind it is easy to understand why Quails often be-come scarce in a country where Grouse abound.

Small birds pass the winter nights in evergreens, thick-growing vines, under the eaves of verandas, or on the rafters of bridges. Many creep into cracks of outhouses. I have found them at night in caves, barns, and once in a covered wagon. Almost any available shelter may have its bird tenant on cold nights, who if undisturbed will often return again and again to the refuge it has once found safe and comfortable.

Birds that pass the winter in the Northern States are subjected to many hardships. In fact, the fatalities in the bird world in winter are so great, and the population so constantly reduced by one form of tragedy or another, that it is only the stronger and more fortunate individuals of a species that survive to enjoy the summer.