Hard Winter for Critters

Fond as I am of the little people who are truly our closest neighbors – the occasional field mouse or wood rat, even the chipmunks, squirrels, and birds – sometimes they try my patience.

Case in point. I plant my kitchen herb garden in a clay window box, actually a faded red plastic box on the deck with a few herbs like parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme.

(I’ve always wanted to use that particular grouping for the sheer romance of it.)

All did well last summer and I brought them into the screen porch when the weather began getting really cold. Of the four named, however, only the parsley and the rosemary thrived. The sage and some basil in another pot did not live long enough to bring into the house.

After a summer’s heat, parsley usually starts to thrive again when the temperature drops. So my herb garden spends the winter under the “greenhouse” – our back wall – where sun soaks in and a few seeds are germinating. Only the parsley looks strong and promising. We’ll get back to this later.

This has been one of the best – or worst – years we’ve had for winter-birding. Extreme cold puts birds in high gear for finding food, and somehow they communicate the location of faithful bird feeders to their colleagues. Kinglets, brown-headed-and white-breasted nuthatches come in, as well as hermit thrushes, brown thrashers and mockingbirds. Familiar as mockers are in our neighborhood, we’ve had them at the feeders only a few years, none recently. I’d love to say we’ve had rose-breasted grosbeaks, but we haven’t. Nor have we had cedar waxwings, although we see them in parking lot shrubs, attracted, I believe, by a bumper crop of wax myrtle berries – or am I just trying to associate the two (waxwings, wax myrtle)?

Dave says he has been hearing barred owls advertising property, but I haven’t. I sleep too well.

The Canada geese – now there’s a choir of angels, bleating their own tune of praise as their primary feathers push them into flight.

We commented, when the first wave of cold air hit Fayette County, that it would be a great winter for animals because the acorn and sweet gum and walnut crop – called “mast” collectively – was huge this fall. That, plus windstorms shredding the leaves off the trees, makes birding and pictures a bit easier.

From the smallest to the largest, a couple of reports: Sandy and Charles Davis have another hummingbird over-wintering in their back yard. While the ruby-throated hummers, so familiar to us all summer, depart these latitudes in October, more and more western hummingbirds are staying. The key, says Sandy, is absolute fidelity about keeping feeders clean and filled. She keeps two at the ready every day, alternating thawed, warmed, fresh for the brave little lady – most likely a rufous – at her window.

Joel Cowan watched a pair of bald eagles around Lake Peachtree last fall, and now believes they may have begun building or renovating a nest to start a family. Joel keeps binoculars and about 15 bird guides on a window ledge close near a table ideal for a second cup of coffee every morning.

And my advice for birders? Be faithful. Keep feeders, both sugar water and seeds, clean and filled. If you can’t keep up with them, put them out when you can. Consistency is important, but irregular feeding is better than none. Keeping a source of food available and not hidden helps birds survive freezing rain.

You don’t need fancy bird mixtures. Black-oil sunflower seeds are the hands-down favorites for the most birds. Cardinals and others also love millet. Anything else is superfluous. We keep cracked corn available – it’s cheap and diverts squirrels from the more expensive mixes. Well, some squirrels.

I used to boil down beef fat for suet, but that’s a miserable mess when you can buy it for less than a buck a cake at Kroger. Someone gave us a seed wreath, a ring of suet and seed with a pretty bow on top, and the birds were all over it. I don’t think we’ve ever had such success with a new gadget. A tufted titmouse was on it almost as soon as we stepped back to admire our work.

I gave Dave a bird cam, a camera activated by passing birds or whatever. We’ve only opened it once, and the images were not too vivid. Blame operator error and a steep learning curve. At least we’ll be able to identify the neighborhood cats when we get good with it.

But back to the parsley-filled window box. There were about a dozen slim little stems with clusters of leaves on them when I brought it into the house. Next morning, half had been cut down and scattered around the tile floor where the container sits. Also on the floor: clear evidence of vermin.

I covered the surviving stems with light newspaper one morning, but when I took that off, and forgot to put it back over the box just one night, the remaining parsley had also been topped.

That’s gratitude for you.

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