THROUGH THE WOODS: Winter food for wildlife

A ROUGH COUNTY SURVEY of natural food sources for birds and animals shows that so far things look pretty good this year. During tough weather it is surprising what will be eaten. If you have a compost pile you may have witnessed some changes already. Ever wonder what happens to old pumpkins and squash, and the fields of them that are not harvested? If they are left until spring they freeze and get soft on warmer days. Deer bite out chunks and open them up for turkeys and other birds and smaller mammals.

If you pay attention there are incredible numbers of apple trees everywhere. Different varieties stay on trees for different lengths of time, so food is available until spring. Deer will stand on their hind legs and pull off all the apples they can reach and visit trees regularly to eat the ones that eventually fall off. Fox, coyotes and other animals we think of as meat eaters join in too. Coyotes can leap high off the ground to get fruit, and unbelievably, foxes can climb trees. Birds will pick at larger apples but prefer the smaller crab apples.

There are crab apples behind my house. This time of year, the robins, bluebirds and cedar waxwings are already trying them. Some crab apples get sweeter through the winter to spring, when the apples finally develop the sugar content the birds enjoy. Birch trees have seed filled catkins loved by goldfinches, pine siskins, and redpolls. These finches and the sparrows love the weed seeds along roads and in abandoned fields. Often there will be pileated woodpeckers, our largest, crow-sized woodpeckers, wrapped in a tangle of wild grapevine eating the “raisins” with gusto.

Deer, squirrels and turkeys are eating this year’s acorn crop. The multiflora roses are covered with red rose hips and the birds and deer pull them off to eat. Turkeys will fly up on top of the dense rose bushes where the deer can’t reach, and perch on the springy cane. This can be hilarious to watch as they stretch out their necks and bounce up and down. We are envious of their disregard of all those thorns that tear us to shreds.

High bush cranberries are so sour they will be left until spring. Staghorn sumac fruit is one of the most abundant foods for robins, bluebirds, and woodpeckers. Other fruits are red osier dogwood, hawthorn, and poison ivy berries. Evergreen stands of spruce and pine are important for their seed filled cones. Northern visitors like red, and white-winged crossbills, feed on these and take shelter in the dense limbs and needles. If you like to provide natural foods near your house consult a nursery for appropriate plants, shrubs, and trees for your area. It is a joy to see all creatures well fed for the tough times ahead.

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