Nature Table for January
This month – the cold, dark, first one of the new year – is generally the one that launches birds’ most challenging time of year. With January generally comes ice and some serious snowfall, blanketing the local landscape under a beautiful and fluffy covering that, for humans, sparks unscheduled days off and season-specific outdoor activities. For the creatures with whom we share the local landscape, however, the ice and snow typical to January means something else: an increase in the amount of time and energy spent finding food, and a decrease in the accessibility of winter food sources.
This January, though, humans and creatures alike can’t quite seem to be able to figure out what to do with themselves: not only are we short a good foot or so of snow as ground covering, but we haven’t even experienced temperatures below the freezing point for more than a few days at a time. El Niño has given us a warm winter – one that doesn’t allow us to depend on seasonally-dictated routines in order to explore nature. Where last January certainly lived up to expectations, granting perfect conditions under which to search for animal tracks and sign, this January leaves the landscape largely exposed, offering itself as a buffet for the hardy species who stick around these parts through the winter.
This month’s table is not our usual kind: it is a dinner table of sorts, focused on the January habits of our feathered friends. Outside our classroom windows are four feeders, offering up a buffet for a variety of bird species. Inside, we’re accumulating an assortment of foods that the our bird-neighbors can still easily find and enjoy within the local landscape. Seeds and berries remain in abundance thanks to the lack of snow, and we know that our feeder birds are taking full advantage of this as they alternate between feeding at our tree and feeding in the branches, brambles, and bushes of the nearby woods.
The ease with which birds are able to find food this season means that we probably won’t see as high a volume of birds at our feeder as we did last year, and it almost definitely means that our feeders won’t turn into a last resort food source for any mammals, either (last year brought both deer and bear sign to our feeder area). However, the smaller number of feathered friends taking advantage of our well-stocked buffet gives us peace of mind: we can rest assured that the birds are not starving, and that should the weather take a turn, they’ll be prepared. Harsh winters – like last year’s – can make all creature populations take a nose dive. Milder winters – like this year’s – give creatures the opportunity to begin to restore their numbers.
Last winter ended with a starving barred owl dying just feet away from our doorstep. This winter, we honor this beautiful beast by studying the habits of its oviparous friends and neighbors as they explore our surroundings in ways that our owl never could.
On our nature table, we’ve collected:
- – samples of the seed we’re offering to our birds (thistle and black oil sunflower seeds)
- – two kinds of suet (store-bought bricks and deer fat harvested by a parent)
- – peanuts
- – raisins (leftover from our lunches)
- – berries, such as bayberry
- – cracked corn
- – feathers from blue jays, robins, doves, and other locals
Books to support winter bird studies include:
- Backyard Birds of Winter by Carol Lerner
- Winter Tree Birds by Lucy Ozone and John Hawkinson
- Lewis Cardinal’s First Winter by Amy Crane Johnson and Rob Mommaerts
- No Two Alike by Keith Baker
- A Bird in Winter: A Children’s Book Inspired by Peter Breugel by Stepanie Girel and Helene Kerillis
Robin Morgan Huntley, Community-Based Education Correspondent
A native to Maine, Robin joined Hilltown Families in early 2011. She is a graduate of Antioch University with a masters in education. Her interests within the field of education include policy and all types of nontraditional education. For her undergraduate project at Hampshire College, Robin researched the importance of connecting public schools with their surrounding communities, especially in rural areas. Robin lives and teaches 5th grade in the Hilltowns of Western MA and and serves on the Mary Lyon Foundation Board of Directors.