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ALWAYS IN SEASON: Birds of open country face winter survival challenge

Last week's storm made conditions worse for wild birds -- not Blizzard Brett, but the ice that came earlier, while Brett was only a winter storm. Most birds are well adapted to wind and cold. It's snow that poses the greater threat. Especially sn...

Mike Jacobs
Mike Jacobs portrait for Always in Season column

Last week's storm made conditions worse for wild birds -- not Blizzard Brett, but the ice that came earlier, while Brett was only a winter storm.

Most birds are well adapted to wind and cold.

It's snow that poses the greater threat.

Especially snow that doesn't move around.

That kind of snow fell in advance of Monday's blizzard, and it has coated just about all open country.

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It's hard-packed.

The wind won't move it.

And wild birds can't.

These conclusions first occurred to me Monday afternoon. As the blizzard winds began to abate, a pair of birds appeared at our bird feeders.

Suezette noticed them first and knew they were unusual. She called my attention to them.

At first, I dismissed these visitors as redpolls and remarked that these would be the first of their species to show up at the feeders this winter.

But the birds seemed too large to be redpolls, and so I looked again.

The birds were snow buntings.

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Of course, this was a foolish mistake because snow buntings don't resemble redpolls very much.

But I forgave myself because redpolls are far more likely to show up at a bird feeder than are snow buntings.

Ordinarily, snow buntings are birds of open fields, the more barren the more likely the buntings. Often, they feed along country roads, sometimes in immense flocks.

But they seldom come to bird feeders. These are the first that I've seen at our feeders in 11 years living at our place, which is west of Gilby, N.D.

The buntings didn't eat sunflower seeds. Perhaps their beaks are ill-suited to cracking the seeds. They did spend some time picking up thistle seed that the goldfinches had spilled.

Mostly, however, they were attracted to weeds that we'd left unpulled at the end of the gardening year and to some ornamental grasses that we've planted.

These project above the snow.

The snow buntings harvested seeds in an interesting way, by jumping up and picking seeds from the stems.

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I haven't seen snow buntings in the yard since -- but of course, I'm not usually home on weekdays.

Snow buntings have been abundant along County Road 33, my usual route to work.

Another open country species has been especially numerous along the road, as well. Gray partridges are much more frequent than they've been most years.

Again, the likely explanation is the think, impenetrable snow cover. Partridges have come to road edges looking for seed to sustain them in the cold.

It occurs to me that this may explain the sudden appearance of snowy owls in our area. They're eating partridges, which must be easy prey because they stand out against the white snow.

Owls, like all predators, are opportunists. They go to where the hunting is easiest.

Snow cover presents another kind of threat to partridges. They burrow into the snow to protect themselves from cold and windy weather.

But of course, they can't do that when the snow is hard as concrete.

In most winters, the wind exposes at least some ground. Even after the big snow of Christmas Day, many fields were black.

This year, the wind won't scour the fields in quite that way. Instead, strong sunshine will be needed to bring a general thaw that will break the snow cover.

That's not too likely, at least for a while.

So, the partridges and snow buntings, and other wildlife species, too, likely face a difficult season.

Neither buntings nor partridges are in any way endangered, of course. Snow buntings may be the most abundant winter birds in the Red River Valley every winter.

Partridge populations are highly variable. As ground dwellers, partridges are vulnerable to a variety of calamities. Heavy snow is probably not the worst of them. Spring flooding likely has a greater impact on partridge populations because it destroys nests.

Mike Jacobs is publisher and editor of the Herald. This column about the natural world appears Sundays on the Northland Outdoors page.

Related Topics: ALWAYS IN SEASONMIKE JACOBS
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