Monday, October 30, 2006

Birds at night

Where do birds go at night – especially in the winter?

When heading off to sleep, birds are looking for protection from two things: enemies and the elements. Because of this – and, of course, the fact that it’s dark out – people rarely see sleeping birds.

Diurnal birds – those active in the daytime – have various ways of spending the night. Many small songbirds simply find a branch in a convenient tree to protect themselves from wind, rain and snow. Some favor thick bushes and shrubs. Many like spruces, hemlocks and other evergreens whose needles provide a degree of year-round protection. Cavity dwellers, such as woodpeckers and wrens, may make use of holes in trees or among rocks or fallen trees.

Outside breeding season, many songbirds such as robins, bluebirds and even cardinals will gather in flocks and sleep together. Some birds, such as crows, vultures, and starlings, will roost in great numbers. Roosts provide protection in numbers as well as a modicum of heat generated by all the bodies being fairly close together.

Gull, ducks and geese will float on water at night, usually in groups, while some shorebirds will settle down for the night on a relatively remote beach or in grass at the edge of the shore.

Some birds, such as Common Redpolls, ptarmigans and Ruffed Grouse, will bury themselves in snow at night, taking advantage of its insulating quality. It was a technique emulated by North American Indians as they journeyed away from camp in winter.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Fishing for cats

A century ago our suburban countryside was largely farmers’ fields, a moonscape compared to today. Now, the trees have returned, and with them, some woodland creatures that haven’t been seen since before the colonists flattened the forests primeval.

A case in point is the fisher. This 10- to 15-pound marten has long been found in northern New England and forested regions across North America. But until a few years ago, these weasel-like mammals were unknown here. Now that the trees are back, so are the fishers.

Sometimes called fisher cats, fishers neither fish nor are they even closely related to cats. In fact, they may be a cat’s worst enemy. Fishers usually feed on wild mammals ranging from mice and voles to porcupines and young deer. In suburbia, however, domestic cats are becoming a fisher delicacy. And there’s little a hapless cat can do – run up a tree and the arboreal fisher will follow right behind.

It’s another good reason why all pet cats should be house cats.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Eat a sheep’s nose

Nothing gives more, yet asks less in return, than a tree, particularly the apple,” said Jonathan Chapman. Better known as Johnny Appleseed, Chapman spent a half-century promoting the apple's many gifts. Besides providing flowers in the spring and shade in the summer, the tree gives us fruit in the fall. Countless dishes – from pies and cakes to sauces and butters – are made from apples. We can drink its juice and, if we age it a bit, tipple its hard cider.

The fruit is tasty and nutritious, full of fiber. It comes in a perfect package: attractive, long-lasting, and 100% biodegradable.

More than 2,000 apple varieties were once grown in the United States, offering a huge variety of flavors, as well as textures, colors, picking times, and durability. Apples names like Westfield, York imperial, black gilliflower, Baker, Newtown pippin, Stayman, and Esopus Spitzenburg were once commonplace. Today we’re lucky to find a half-dozen kinds in a supermarket and a dozen at an orchard.

However, “antiques” are still around and if you’re out for a ride in rural America, watch for an orchard carrying Dutchess of Oldenburg, opalescent, Ashmeads kernel, or even sheep’s nose. Buy a bag and taste Americas yesterday.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

The survivalists

The season of migration is well underway as millions of birds flee the coming cold.

Their journeys often amaze us with their length and navigational expertise. The Arctic Tern flies 11,000 miles from northern Canada to Antarctica each fall. The hummingbird, weighing but a fraction of an ounce, may traverse a thousand miles of the Gulf of Mexico to reach winter grounds. Many songbirds fly hundreds of miles each night, guided only by stars or some invisible magnetic field.

Amazing all. But what of the birds that choose to stay? Are they just lazy? Hardly.

While their migrating brethren are enjoying temperate shores and tropical forests, our year-round birds face cold and snow. They must survive winter’s winds and frigid temperatures. They must find sustenance when a foot or more of snow covers the ground. Many must spend months in preparation, storing food for winter use – and later remembering the hundreds of caches they made.

Whether they are winging their way to warmth, or just crouching against the cold, birds are astounding survivalists.