Wild Side: Color and action in winter shades of grayBig flakes of snow came down through the fog Sunday morning. It was the last day of a January thaw. Looking out across the valley, we could see only vague outlines of the trees. Cardinals perched like Christmas ornaments on a red osier dogwood bush next to the bird feeder lent color to the winter scene.
By: Dan Wilcox, outdoor columnist, River Falls Journal
Big flakes of snow came down through the fog Sunday morning. It was the last day of a January thaw. Looking out across the valley, we could see only vague outlines of the trees. Cardinals perched like Christmas ornaments on a red osier dogwood bush next to the bird feeder lent color to the winter scene.
Most of the other winter resident birds at the feeder are outfitted in black, gray and white. Dark-eyed juncos are Canadian summer residents that winter in our area. They are quick-moving sparrows, mostly dark gray on the back and head with a white belly.
White-breasted nuthatches are year-round residents. They often search for food upside down. Their dark cap, slate blue back and white face and belly looks black and white from a distance. We occasionally see red-bellied nuthatches with a black eye stripe and a rusty belly.
Black capped chickadees are common cute little birds with an oversized black-capped head and throat, gray back, buff sides and white belly. They are active birds that often fly in flocks, looking for insects on bark and twigs. They like bird feeders but usually stay only long enough to grab a seed and then fly off to eat elsewhere.
When all the birds near the feeder fly off in a panic, it’s usually a Cooper’s hawk or a northern shrike that’s patrolling looking for a bird meal. Cooper’s hawks are small year-round resident hawks that specialize in agile flying to capture birds. They can be identified by their short broad wings and banded tail.
Northern shrikes are medium-sized predatory songbirds that breed in Canada and winter farther south. They have a gray back, white throat and chest, a black mask on a large head, a stout bill with a hook at the end, black wings with a white patch and a black tail with white outer feathers.
When northern shrikes kill more prey than they can immediately eat, they store it, often impaled on a thorn to eat later. This behavior has led to their nickname, “butcherbird.”
We went for a hike up our valley on Sunday, slogging through 10 inches of wet snow. There wasn’t much color except for some emerald green algae and lichen growing on a sandstone face along the creek.
Up on top of the hill, a congregation of crows was eating gravel on the edges of the road. They flew off together, yelling about the intrusion. Crows aggregate during winter to roost, giving each individual more protection against marauding owls. I’ve seen as many as 100 crows roosting together in our woods. They really raise a ruckus when they find an owl, mobbing it and often driving the owl out of the neighborhood.
Crows are among the smartest of all birds. Their cousins, the ravens, are larger and even smarter. Ravens are fairly common in northern Wisconsin but I haven’t seen one in our neighborhood east of River Falls.
If you see a big black bird do a somersault in flight, that’s a raven. Their repertoire of calls is remarkable, ranging from a commonly heard “gronk, gronk” to clicks and bell-like notes.
Farther along the road, a blizzard of little black and white birds flew across the fields. Snow buntings nest on rocky tundra in the high arctic in Canada and winter down here. They usually forage on the ground in flocks. Our weather last weekend must have seemed pretty balmy for them.
Despite the dreary weather, there’s still plenty of color and action to see if you get out and about.
Please send any comments and suggestions for this column to me at email@example.com.