SEEKONK LAND TRUST
Winter is a good time to start watching birds. Their energy and activity enliven the quiet landscape, while leafless trees make it easier to spot even the smaller birds. Attracting common species to bird feeders provides the opportunity to appreciate the details of color and patters of plumage and to note the birds’ behaviors and interactions. Over time, you may be able to recognize individuals and start to develop an understanding of the relationships within the flock and between species.
On winter outings by ski or snowshoe, I listen for calls and chattering of black-capped chickadees (Poecile atricapillus) as they move in small groups through the forest. Although chickadees are reliable visitors at bird feeders, at least half of their diet consists of animal prey. They spend considerable time investigating cracks and crevices in bark, exploring clumps of dead leaves, and examining twigs in search of dormant insects and spiders, including eggs and larvae. Groups of chickadees attract other songbirds who understand the chickadees’ calls and travel with them in feeding guilds gleaning for tiny prey. Traveling as a group can result in more successful foraging and also provides the birds more safety from predators.
The chickadee is the core species of the feeding guild that may include nuthatches, brown creepers, golden-crowned kinglets, and downy woodpeckers. The individuals in mixed-species flocks forage on different trees or different parts of the same tree. The members tend to have different bill sizes and shapes, which indicates that they are seeking different prey and are not in direct competition for food. Finding a flock of chickadees and their companions provides an opportunity to see less conspicuous birds like the brown creeper and golden-crowned kinglet that can be hard to spot otherwise.
Chickadees store seeds for the winter by tucking then into crevices, clusters of spruce needles, or any place the seeds will fit. A chickadee may store as many as a thousand seeds a day and can remember where they are stored. Birds that live in colder climates where storing food is important have a hippocampus — the part of the brain involved in spatial memory — that enlarges in the fall and shrinks in the spring. Blue jays are also expert at storing abundant seeds and retrieving them at a later date. This means of storing food is known as scatter hoarding and is found throughout the animal kingdom.
A chickadee will excavate a snug cavity in a tree “snag” for roosting on winter nights. Red- and white-breasted nuthatches utilize old woodpecker holes for roosting. To make your yard a welcoming place for winter birds, it’s a good idea to allow some snags to remain nearby to provide roosting spots.
Winter birding invites the curious observer to develop a deeper appreciation for local bird life. And it assures us that the forest is an active place even in the cold and hush of the shortest days of the year.
Numerous resources offer information about birds and birding. The Cornell Lab website, allaboutbirds.org is a good place to start.
Reprinted from Adirondac magazine with permission of the publisher and author, Audrey Hyson.
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