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home : features : science and nature December 17, 2014

Birds in December
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The Kingdom is poised at winter's doorstep, where water doesn't hesitate to show us its three states--remember grade school? solid, liquid, gaseous--all in the same morning hour, as snow crystals arrive in hesitant swirls that sharpen into bullets of sleety rain before hissing out in gray river mists.

I've heard that this year our resident black-and-white patterned beauties, the chickadees and nuthatches and woodpeckers, will be competing with an influx of finch species of the boreal and tundra regions north of these highlands.

There's a kind of extreme consequence to food-gathering on a day with under nine hours to it and almost twice that long a night to live through.

Nomadic cone and catkin specialists like Pine Siskin and Common Redpoll may be on their way to your yard. I've had siskins at my thistle feeder already, and flocks of Bohemian Waxwings are combing the hills for winter berries.

This is happening because drought has inhibited fruiting of Ontario's crabapples and mountain ash, as well as conifer seed maturation, a bleak glimpse into the future of the warming planet.

The nursery catalogues that help us wish away the cold months have started arriving. I don't think I'm alone in believing we've reached a time when human wishes need to be balanced by a sense of what other species are seeking as they struggle to fulfill the cycle of their lives, to renew their lines of participation in the wondrous experiment of the Earth.

You can find 'perfect' gardens for birds on sale, but maybe it's helpful to think, instead, of the little redheaded finch, the Redpoll, weighing the equivalent of a couple of coins and evolved over millennia into a shaker of birch catkins. Out fall the seeds, and onto the snow the intrepid Redpoll follows--until, as happened this year, the catkins are empty, and he must head south.

Of course we'll enjoy the visitors to our sunflower and thistle feeders. It would be in keeping with the practical and hardy philosophy bred in its inhabitants by the land hereabouts, however, if the longer view were taken!

How? Amplify the birds' native food supply, including Wild cherry, Elder, and those pale ballerinas of the trees: the alders and birches that drape themselves in long earrings filled with seeds.

I get the part where evolutionary memory makes us feel safer with lawns; hey, forests were 'evil' once upon a time and we got some good literature out of that. But now a new story is upon us, and upon the species we share life with. Some of the winged ones are on their way here, to survive winter with us. If you want just one feeder, I'd go with suet. But long-term, consider a tree or shrub that, each December, will feed future generations of those bits of day-lightning wearing feathers!

? ANNUAL BARNET CHRISTMAS BIRD COUNT! Tuesday January 1, 2013. Contact Charlie Browne for information and to register (, 748-2372). NEK Audubon welcomes all participants in this citizen science initiative.

? During this holiday, give the kids a close-up view of the Northeast Kingdom birds commonly seen in our backyards. Visit the Fairbanks Museum, 2nd floor, to find a special Digiscope bird photography exhibit by NEK Audubon President Tom Berriman.

The author of Bird Notes, Veer Frost, is a board member of NEK Audubon Society, a non-profit organization that encourages the appreciation of birds, wildlife, and our natural habitat. Affiliated with the National Audubon, NEK Audubon is one of 8 chapters of Audubon Vermont. For information about meetings, field trips, publications, and special events, visit Facebook/NEKAudubon. Peregrine Falcon drawing by Robin Rothman.

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