Winter birds

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(HOST) From forest branch to back-yard feeder, birds brighten up our spare winter landscape. Commentator Tom Slayton has observed quite a variety lately, from exotic to domestic, both large and small.

(SLAYTON) The first snowy owl of the winter showed up in East Warren last week. I always try to make an appointment to pay my homage when one of these large, very impressive snow-white owls is in town. They have a wingspread of five feet or more and an air of arctic mystery and owlish inscrutability.

I kept my distance because I didn’t want to harass this wonderful bird or scare him away. He seemed quite dignified as he sat atop his little knoll, hardly moving, except for quietly scanning the open field below him with his great golden eyes, ever on the alert for food. He must have been pretty successful; people in the store nearby said the owl had been hanging around for about three weeks, which meant he had found a good food supply.

I watched him for a half-hour and then went back to my somewhat ordinary life, feeling enriched and pleased by my encounter with this rare, beautiful creature.

The pleasure of seeing rare birds is enormous. But even the most ordinary birds can offer us insight and the deep satisfaction of connecting with the natural world.

Almost every morning there’s an ongoing drama around my little suet feeder. The bigger hairy woodpeckers find it difficult to feed at this little feeder because it swings wildly with their weight and gives them a frantic ride. So they like to chisel off a hunk of suet and take it to a certain spot on the trunk of the little crabtree where the feeder hangs. There they smush it onto the bark or hold it with their feet and eat it – dining out.

The smaller downy woodpeckers can hang onto the dangling suet feeder and feed there quite effectively. But they, too, sometimes break off a piece of suet and take it down to the tree trunk and smush it onto the bark and carefully eat it.

I don’t know why, but they fly their little take-out meal to exactly the same spot on the tree truck favored by the hairies, and so that section of trunk is getting worn pretty smooth from all the woodpecker activity. They’re not drilling into it the way a sapsucker might, just using it as a kind of woodpecker picnic table.

The bluejays are just too big to hang on my little suet feeder. So they swoop in like big blue interceptors, scare all the smaller birds away, and then glean up the little chunks of suet from the snow underneath the feeder.

All this goes on for fifteen or twenty minutes, and then all the birds will suddenly fly off. Maybe there was a hawk I couldn’t see, or maybe it was just time to go on to the next feeder. It’s impossible to say – just one of the many small mysteries that help make up the great mystery of a north country winter.

One thing’s for sure, however. Nature is not dead during these long cold months, not even really asleep. The life-spirit is alive, pulsing, vigorous, even on the darkest, coldest days. You can glimpse it in the great, golden eyes of a snowy owl, waiting quietly for a vole to cross a tawny winter field. Or see it in the fluttery jousting of woodpeckers and chickadees at a backyard feeder.

Tom Slayton is the editor of Vermont Life magazine. He spoke from our studio in Montpelier.

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