Marianne Van Osch (Patrick Davies, 100 Mile Free Press photo)

Watching the birds help us fight ‘Midwinter Jickers’

Guest column: Marianne Van Osch

Every morning, no matter how warm my bed feels, and how cold it may be outside, I know that I must get going. There are folks who are waiting for me. The minute I stumble out, there they are.

Our resident steller’s jay screeches to hurry up, can’t I see they’re hungry! He flies to one of the low feeding tables where he stomps around like an impatient diner in a busy restaurant. His wife waits quietly nearby. Chickadees flit back and forth, chirping like cheery birds in an old Disney film as I fill the two hanging feeders, one large dining emporium on a pole and two tables.

Sunflower seeds are the basic entree. The jays pull the seeds with their feet to the edge of the table where they hold them, and tear them open with their beaks. The chickadees zip in, grab a seed, and head straight for a nearby tree to stash it. They are happy little fellows who often sing a few notes in appreciation for their breakfast. Evening grosbeaks, grey jays, sparrows and a gilded flicker drop by. The grosbeaks like communal dining and crowd tightly into the hanging feeders.

Cracked corn has proven to be a wonderful addition to our winter menu. It is a favourite with juncos. They like to feed on the ground so I scatter some corn around the base of a tree.

A flock of small pine siskins arrives to pick at tiny pieces of corn with the juncos. Siskins are easy to recognize. They are nervous and swoop as one, up and away from any disturbance. A few flower heads stick up through the snow. The siskins check out the snow around them and also under the willow tree.

In the afternoon the crows who patrol our neighbourhood come by and pick up the large kernels of corn. During the night deer pass through and clean up whatever is left of the sunflower seeds and corn.

In the morning the tables and ground patches are smooth.

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Last summer three crows raised two young ones in our yard, teaching them noisy crow lessons that went on for days. They are still here, although much quieter. They fly in, grab a piece of whatever I put out for them, and fly away, or stalk around the yard with it. A beautiful shiny raven sits high above, keeping an eye on the crows. When he glides down and hops to the corn or food scraps, the crows scatter.

One day, many more crows than usual appeared. They did not go near the feeding stations but formed a circle around a white birch tree. They pecked and dug in the snow. They moved on to every birch tree in the neighbourhood, picking up seeds.

Farther along the path a holder of fat draws a large crowd all day. The holder is simple. A large rectangle of half-inch chicken wire is folded over chunks of fat and secured with twist ties. It is hung on a screw hook and tied at the bottom with a string around the tree.

Downy, hairy and pileated woodpeckers share the fat. A pair of woodpeckers who are regular diners make a stunning picture, one on each side of the holder. One winter an old pileated, thinly feathered and with faded colours, slept for hours near the holder whenever it was sunny.

Flickers and nuthatches like the fat. The nuthatches are interesting to watch as they work their way headfirst down fir and spruce trees, searching for bugs.

In the early afternoon, the feeders are deserted. Everyone has gone to their roost for a siesta. Some will return for a final look around. By dusk, the cold has sent them all into whatever shelter they can find.

Dr. Seuss wrote of a winter storm called the Midwinter Jicker, that caused dark and fearful feelings, a perfect description of our situation at this time. Birds provide a diversion, something to watch and learn about, and a reason to go out into our lovely fresh air. They give us one way to fight those Midwinter Jickers.

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