Animals also making most of the warm winter

Published 11:09 am Friday, January 20, 2012

An item in the Austin Audubon chapter’s latest newsletter caught my eye: Reporting on the chapter’s 37th Christmas Bird Count, the writer noted that counters had seen several unusual species but had also noted fewer-than-usual numbers of some common species.

The suspected cause for both phenomena, at least in part, was the unusually warm winter weather that we had enjoyed until this week.

Among the unusual species — or, at any rate, unusual for this time of year — were a bufflehead duck and three wood ducks. Few goldfinch, pine siskin and hairy woodpeckers were visible; during a warm winter with little snow cover, birds that normally come to feeders are instead able to forage for natural food, making them harder to spot.

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The suet feeder at our house has had fewer woodpecker visits than usual. Or else the birds are there but aren’t eating much, because I have had to change the suet blocks far less frequently. It is hard to be sure of the cause because, this time of year, it’s dark when we leave for work in the morning and dark when we return, so we only have weekend days for direct observation.

We have also noticed that the deer which live along Turtle Creek are behaving differently during this mild winter. During snowy years, the deer travel well-worn trails along the creek banks. We often see them in groups of a dozen or more, walking one after the other through the trench-like path they have worn in the snow.

This year, we have seen none of the really big groups. Instead, the deer have wandered past in three and fours, ljust like summer, cutting random paths through the yard.

It is a year when the deer could perhaps have withstood some tough conditions, because they were munching the inch-thick layer of acorns well into the fall. Last year, when the snow was heavy, the deer had to have gone into the winter far hungrier because the oaks produced hardly an acorn. Not that the herd along Turtle Creek ever seems too desperate.

It will be interesting to see whether their behavior changes if the snow forecast for today arrives.

Audubon observers also spotted 19 bald eagles during the Christmas count, which was a record and a clear indicator of the species’ resurgence – much like timber wolves. Last week’s column about wolves brought several e-mail messages.

Dick Nelson, a former Minnesotan who read the column on-line in a Twin Cities newspaper’s web site, where it was reprinted, sent me his thoughts on the proposed timber wolf hunting season from the perspective of the wolves:

“Well, folks, we get blamed for a lot of things. Recently there was an article in the Star-Trib about the low numbers of deer in the State. We wolves, of course, were to blame. No one blamed us when the deer herd was at record highs over the past few years, but now, somehow, it’s fashionable to blame the wolf once again for the deer herd decline.

“The humans, of course, rarely take any responsibility for decimating the herd. Yet year after year they continue to kill the does, the animal that produces the next spring’s fawns. One wolf came over here to Minnesota from Wisconsin and told us that over there the DNR requires that hunters shoot does in order to shoot a buck. It’s called the “earn a buck” program. Why, some hunters over there have routinely been shooting four or five does at $2/tag for a number of years now. These people must be either really hungry, or they simply like to kill things.

“There are only about 3,000 of us wolves in Minnesota, but each year the DNR gives out more than 800,000 licenses and permits so humans to kill the deer. And then there are some 19,000 deer killed each year by the automobiles which you humans drive. Our pack is waiting for us to be blamed for this also.

“Two professional sports teams, the Lakers and the Timberwolves, have been nicknamed for the beauty and wildness of Minnesota. In all of Minnesota’s history, not one of us has ever attacked a human, but you keep attacking us. Why? How many of you have even seen one of us in the wild? We’re really a friendly group and we will not hurt you. So, please don’t hurt us anymore. We’re only trying to survive — just like you.”