When I have time to sit out in the autumn sunshine, my favorite occupation is watching how all the various wild creatures that visit my yard are getting ready for winter. Nearly all of the “summer” birds have prepared for winter by leaving.
The last hummingbird was at my feeder on Monday, Sept. 19, although I have had one as late as Sept. 20 in years past. I was very remiss in taking my feeder in the night before; as a result, the raccoons trashed it. They are eating everything they can as they want to put on as much fat as possible to see them through the winter when, even though they do not hibernate, they find food scarce.
I still have one hummingbird feeder up just in case a late migrant may come through, for such birds are usually hungry and must have food to complete their journey. House wrens, tanagers, black-headed grosbeaks, flycatchers and most of the swallows have left. A few chipping sparrows are still eating millet at my feeders, and the evening grosbeaks are also still here. They might stay all winter, but I’ll be surprised if they do since these are the birds that came in May to breed in our valley, and they usually leave in the fall. Others may arrive from Canada with the first snow to winter here. These are birds that are finding food scarce in their northern forests and have come south looking for food.
The Steller’s jays and most of the squirrel family are busy storing food to see them through the winter when food is scarce. Some of the rodents, like the golden-mantled ground squirrel and the Richardson’s ground squirrels found so commonly in Elk Meadow Park have already gone into hibernation. Since they sleep all winter, they do not need to store food but do need a good layer of body fat. They, like the black bears, need plenty of body fat to see them through their time of sleep.
Chipmunks are a different story. They sleep off and on during the winter when it is too cold and snowy to be about. They wake up when the weather ameliorates, often romping about in their den and eating their stored food, then returning to sleep when the weather becomes foul again. They are probably the busiest creatures in our yard right now for they are storing food and constructing a nice warm underground nest in which to sleep.
My resident chipmunk has found a way to get into my neighbor’s house and has been carrying huge mouthfuls of his new pink fiberglass insulation down his driveway, across the road, along my wall and into its burrow. I presume it must appear to be a good material with which to line his bed. Better than thistle down and dry leaves, but I fear fiberglass cannot be good for it. Carrying it in its mouth, it would seem to be inevitable that it would get bits of fiberglass into either its lungs or stomach or both, which of course would have dire consequences for the chipmunk. My neighbor has found its access hole and stopped the raiding of his insulation, but the chipmunk has already stolen a prodigious supply, and I fear the damage has been done. It has a plentiful supply of berries and seeds stashed away and if the fiberglass doesn’t cause it to die, it certainly will be well fed and warm. I am anxious to see if it reappears in March.
I am exceptionally fond of chipmunks even though I am often exasperated by the way they eat everything that blooms in my garden. They can dig up spring flowering bulbs faster than I can plant them. They must have very high metabolisms for they eat constantly and consume a huge amount of food. When awake they are nervous, inquisitive, fast-moving, swift little streaks as they cross my patio with their tails held up straight as a pencil. Tey usually have four young and have too broods every summer. The last brood has just grown up after a few weeks of romping about the patio. They have apparently gone off to set up their own homes and get their own winter supplies, leaving just the oldsters to glean what is left of my garden. The deer and elk have eaten most of my chrysanthemums and nasturtiums, but they are sleek and fat and ready for winter.
It has been an incredibly beautiful fall with fine weather. I too shall more or less hibernate until March and hope spring will come again for all creatures great and small.