Its hard to find much of an upside to November and early December sometimes, unless you’re given over to the holidays, or birding. Or deer hunting. Even though its a damp, cold, gray day the feeders are busier than usual with little birds constantly snatching sunflower to be carried away in all directions. The feeder birds are constant companions, and definitely brighten the day.
The Christmas season has for many years had a connection to birds for me, partly because of a failed family experiment. My dad at some point decided that we should grow Christmas trees for sale. We planted an acre’s worth of spruces and balsams, and it was my job in the summer to shear them. I was not very good at it, and didn’t really enjoy clipping trees in the heat of the summer but it was something to do outside. After a few years, birds found the patch and nested in there, making it a more interesting place to be. Our tree marketing was less than enthusiastic, and instead of a source of income the patch became more a source of birds which visited the feeders at our house: song sparrows, cardinals, chipping sparrows, and such. Other birds used the patch for shelter when a Cooper’s hawk visited the area, and there were always rabbits and squirrels around.
Eventually, the once potential Christmas trees became far too large for that use, although I remember cutting off the tops of trees a few times. Now, 50 or so years later, the trees are that many feet tall, and still used by many birds – hosting the nests of everything from sparrows to great-horned owls. And they still fly back and forth from the tree patch to our bird feeders. Any forester would say the patch needs to be thinned, which it does, but the birds sure don’t mind its wild, unmanaged look.
In high school at Roncalli, we had a nature club led by Sister Verna, our biology teacher. She loved birds and took a group of us birdwatching many times after school. For our December outings, because it was dark by late afternoon, we would make edible Christmas ornaments and hang them on a spruce tree for birds. We used simple things like unsalted crackers spread with lard. We saw it as a way to give something back to the wildlife that made life more enjoyable. I’m not sure if birds liked crackers with lard- I think some chickadees tried it- but it was fun and something special to do around the holidays.
Later, after I became acquainted with Woodland Dunes, I was introduced to the annual Christmas Bird Count, which began out east 119 years ago. It’s the oldest and one of the largest citizen-science projects in the world. There are four count areas in Manitowoc County. I have fond memories of roaming far and wide in the snow with Bernie Brouchoud, who always knew where to find the best birds on count days. We’d start before dawn and listen for owls, check every patch of open water for ducks or a later heron or kingfisher, and open fields for snow buntings and gray partridge.
So for me, birds and Christmas go hand-in-hand, or wing perhaps. Birds, and other wildlife, are gifts more valuable than gadgets. The concept is not obvious to all, it requires some thought. Judging by the number of people who call or stop by with questions about birds, there is a lot of interest in them and their welfare. It is our challenge to find ways that people and wildlife can exist so that both can prosper. In the meantime, enjoy birds for the gifts they are, and care for them as we should each other.
Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays.
photo- snowy owl at Woodland Dunes taken by Mike Reese