Icy winters devastate flocks of tiny birds

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By Sylvia Brockner

Reprinted from Feb. 21, 2007

It was late afternoon when I first noticed fog drifting through the valley between Bear Mountain and Stanley Mountain. When a front sags down out of Canada on the plains, it often brings with it an upslope condition, which causes either snow or fog. In this case, the cold front turned the warm air into fog.
At first it slithered through the valley like a pale gray chiffon scarf, twisting and turning, billowing and surging, and it poured through the cut like a huge gray snake. In a matter of minutes, the whole valley was filled with fog.
The trees were cool, and the wind chill factor soon caused the fog to collect on everything above ground, and the moisture rapidly turned to ice. Soon we were in a wonderland of crystalline trees. Every twig, stem and blade of grass had a coating of ice.
The ponderosa pines looked like flocked Christmas tress, but even more magical were the willows and cottonwoods.
The next morning, the coloring of the willows was enhanced by the ice. The white willows with their yellow-range twigs and the sandbar willows with their red stems glowed with yellow and red ice in the morning sun.
Bear Creek valley was magnificent with the colorful ice-coated twigs and the silver-wire filigree of the narrow-leaf cottonwoods.
Today, as I write, many of the trees are still coated with ice. For the last three days, birds and small animals have had a difficult time finding food, for many of them cannot chip through the ice coating to find the seeds or berries within. Such storms can be devastating to small critters.
Birds have a very high metabolism and therefore must eat frequently to prevent starvation. During exceptionally hard storms, hundreds of birds die. Such birds as horned larks, longspurs and snow buntings often cluster in small flocks on the leeward side of clumps of grass or other plants during storms on the plains.
They conserve heat by huddling together, but if the snow and wind continue, they are often covered by drifting snow. Drifted snow is hard-packed, and often they are unable to break through the crust. Unable to escape, they die in a little huddle that is not seen until the snow melts.
Larger birds such as grouse and pheasants may escape from the snow but must still find food. If the snow is not too deep, they may find enough seed-bearing plants such as mullein, corn, grasses and weeds that stand above the snow.
With the constant wind and snow we have had this winter, there will be a serious loss of birds, especially on the plains. Some birds may survive because many farmers put out food for them. Also, many of the prairie birds have learned to find undigested seeds in manure and manure piles. Not a very pleasant food source but better than starving.
In the foothills, many people feed birds, which gives them a better chance of survival. This past week we have heard that Jeff Jones of the Woodland Park area has a “plethora” of Cassin’s finches at his feeders. This is good to hear, for they have been very scarce locally. This week we had a small flock of pine siskins at our feeders, and on Feb. 14, Suzie Dedisse had a Valentine present of 30 or more pine siskins at her feeder.
During the week of fairly decent weather, both our brown thrasher and the Tofte’s varied thrush were not seen at any feeder. They may have taken advantage of the warm spell to move on or to look for natural foods beneath junipers and other shrubs. In which case, they may return to our feeders tomorrow, for snow is falling again. In spite of this, spring is beginning to peek around the corner, and soon the bluebirds will return. Every day grows a bit longer, and things are beginning to change.