The first snow has fallen. Unfortunately, it came three weeks early this year. However, the fall color is still brilliant in some places, and we still have nice weather next week, according to the weatherman.
I feel that it is early, since the first wet, soggy snow usually arrives on Halloween as if it were a mean trick, leaving all the new kids freezing in their thin costumes. You can always tell the newcomers from anyone who has lived here a few years because they learn to buy Halloween costumes large enough to go over their winter parkas.
Along with the summer birds, some species of bats have departed for Mexico, while others are hibernating in caves or old mine shafts where the temperature consistently stays near or just above freezing.
There are no tracks of squirrels, raccoons or bear in the fresh snow. Some have entered hibernation and won’t be seen until spring, while others are just taking a nap and will be up and about as soon as the pleasant fall weather returns.
Winter birds should begin to come to our feeders now. If you do not have a feeder up, now is the time to do so. When the snow is deep, birds can really use some help finding enough to eat and the sight of them at your feeder is truly a mood lifter on a cold snowy day. Local mills and feed stores are your best bet at keeping costs down. Buy 25-, 40- or 50-pound sacks of seed and only use one or two kinds. I feed black oil sunflower seed and white proso millet. The sunflower seeds provide the rich sunflower oil, which they need in winter, and the millet provides a smaller, more easily hulled seed for the little birds such as the dark-eyed juncos. In addition, a chunk of beef suet or a suet cake adds extra protection against winter’s cold.
Remember that even in cold weather, feeders need to be kept clean and the ground beneath them raked up and sprinkled with clean dirt or sand to help prevent the spread of disease. A feeder with a hopper with storage capacity will make it easier for you, eliminating many trips to fill feeders. Also, it is a good idea to stop feeding millet during early March when the brown-headed cowbird returns. It is their favorite food, and if available, they are likely to stay in your area and parasitize the local nests.
I don’t believe that watering devices are really necessary and are not practical in our area. Most are made to keep water from freezing down to about 25 degrees, and our temperatures are often colder than that. Also when we have snow, it will melt in the winter sunshine along the edges of drifts or on south-facing roofs in enough quantity for the birds.
My birds always look for water in the gutter pipe on the south side of the house. Also, birds can and will eat snow when in need of moisture, and it is probably better that they don’t bathe in heated water when the air temperature is below zero. The Wild Bird Store on Castle Court in Evergreen has good fall sales on bird seed. If you order your winter supply, they will store it for you until you need it.
Among the winter birds to look for at your feeder will be the tree sparrow, which will replace the red-capped chipping sparrows that have been with us all summer. Northern shrikes will replace the loggerhead shrikes on the fences and wires along highways, and evening grosbeaks will likely be coming down from Canada if their food supply is scarce there.
The red-shafted variety of the northern flicker often comes to feeders in winter. They will eat suet, insect suet cakes and millet seed. They much prefer eating ants if they can find an anthill on a south-facing slope, which provides them with their winter protein source.
If you are lucky enough to have a Rocky Mountain juniper in your yard, watch it for Townsend Solitaire, robins and bluebirds, which will all use these cones that look like blueberries, to survive if around in winter. Ducks, geese and other water birds should be arriving in good numbers on all the ponds and reservoirs at lower elevations.
This cold front that brought the snow came down out of Canada and should have brought many waterfowl with it. They will stay until our water freezes, then will continue farther south. They usually stay just below the freeze line, not traveling any further than they have to. Winter birding can be interesting, but it’s not fun if you are cold. Dress warmly or stay inside and watch them at your feeder.