Tough Little Birds of Winter

Christmas Day began with a thin layer of ice topped off with a skiff of snow. But as the morning progressed, the clouds darkened and a fine-grained sleet began to fall.  Soon, the sleet tapered off and big flakes of snow took over, whirling around in the wind.  I carefully stepped outside with the camera to get a few shots of birds gathering near the back porch. Some were getting water from a heated bird bath, while others chose to drink water collected on the swimming pool cover.  As I watched them drink, I noticed ice hanging off of a few beaks, and the still-frozen sleet looked like crystals of salt on their backs.

From the porch, I discovered a group of Northern Flickers stacked one above another on the south side of a tree down below, finding a barrier from the wind.  A few of my feathered friends were also taking shelter on the south side of our house along the porch.  I snapped several pictures of my friends, but I often find the camera seldom does justice to the full magic of nature.  It just never seems to adequately capture the beauty and grace of the big snowflakes swirling down around the birds.

Starlings sipping water on the pool cover.
Starlings sipping water on the pool cover.

Stepping out a little further on the back porch, I soon understood why the birds sought shelter on the south side.  The wind had picked up out of the north, blasting through the trees, and hurling snow along the slope.  I had not noticed this when I was looking out to the south.  With a view towards the southeast,  I had been in a protected area and the snow appeared to be falling softly.  Now, as I moved to the northwest corner of the porch, I was no longer sheltered from the blast of the bitter cold and the sting of the hurtling snowflakes.   Old man winter had come barreling in with a fury!  I quickly headed back inside to the warmth of the house!

Mockingbird Resting
This mockingbird visited the heated bird bath many times on Christmas Day.

All through the morning and into the afternoon, the wind gusted and the snow hurled down.  Throughout, I watched through the kitchen window, as countless birds flocked to the bird feeder in the distance.  In time, snowflakes changed from large to small and, by mid afternoon, the snow had stopped.  Only about four inches of snow and the driving wind remained.

When the snow stopped for good, I decided to head out with the camera to get a closer view of the little birds at the feeder.  I bundled up with FD’s old duck hunting coat, my ear flap cap, a scarf, and gloves. I put on my warmest boots, a pair of wool-lined Sorels that I brought with me from Nebraska more than 20 years ago.  But my burly outfit still did not prepare me for the slap of bitter, cold wind that greeted me.  The sting of the wind caused my eyes to tear up, and suddenly my lips felt dry. My hands grew cold and numb inside my gloves.  I put my back to the wind and wondered how on earth any wild creature survived the icy cold of winter.

Three Northern Flickers
These clever northern flickers found shelter from the wind on the south side of a hackberry tree. As I peered across the woodland bottom, I noticed many northern flickers on the south sides of trees!

Just moments into my self-pity, obsessing over the cold, a lone pine siskin flew past me to the feeder. Soon two more gathered. A black-capped chickadee landed just in front of me, awaiting its turn at the feeder.  Before long, a flurry of winged creatures were gathered at the feeder, some taking off, some landing, others squabbling over rights to the feeder’s perch.  A couple of cardinals were not so sure about getting close to me, but for the  most part, the birds did not mind my presence.

At one point, I opened the back of the feeder.  A group of pine siskins stayed perched on the front of the hopper while I scooped out a handful of seed and scattered it about on the snow-covered ground.  I closed the feeder, then stood very still.  In no time I had cardinals, starlings, red-winged blackbirds, and a few juncos feeding on the scattered seed, while the pine siskins and a few chickadees continued their fight for positions on the feeder. A timid titmouse finally flew down just beside me, landed on a shrub,  and then hopped down at my feet and quickly consumed a bit of millet.  Never had I had so many birds so near me and unafraid.  It filled me with elation!

Pine siskins competed all day for perching rights on the bird feeder!
Pine siskins competed all day for perching rights on the bird feeder!

As the strong gusts of wind persisted, I watched the smaller birds struggle to reach the feeder.  I marveled at their perseverance, their pluck to battle the elements… to survive in the bitter cold.   I wondered how feathers could provide enough warmth?  Surely their feet and legs felt the numbing cold?  What about their eyes?  Were they like mine?  Did they get dry and tear up in the freezing conditions?  I pondered if they even thought about such things?  Did they think about the cold at all, or the wind, or the snow?  Was the instinct to seek food for survival much more than the threat of a predator (me) standing so near? Or did they fear me at all? Did they understand my good intentions to feed them?

Full of questions and not able to endure the cold any longer, I made my way back to the house.  My feet were cold despite my insulated boots, and my hands were feeling a bit numb.  My nose was running and as always, the lyrics from the Jethro Tull song, “Aqualung” came to mind… “snot is running down his nose”.  It was a sign… time to get back in the house!

This little fellow couldn't find a spot at the busy bird feeder and seemed to be chirping about it!
This little fellow couldn’t find a spot at the busy bird feeder and seemed to be chirping about it!

For the rest of the afternoon, I watched the activity on the back porch and at the bird feeder from inside my warm home.  Just before dark, the last birds seen at the feeder were the cardinals.  All year long, I noticed the cardinals seem to be the last of the birds to turn in for the night.  Their familiar chirping echoed through the woodland, until the dark crept in and all became silent.  Only the howling of the wind remained.

I thought to myself how tough the little birds of winter must be.  If I were a bird, I thought, I would have been tempted to migrate to the south, where warmer climates and plentiful food abounded.  But then I wondered about the hundreds or thousands of miles migratory birds must fly, enduring all sorts of weather conditions and predators in unfamiliar lands. Whether they stayed to winter over or migrated to the south, life was not easy for these delicate and beautiful, winged creatures.  Yet observing them under these wintry conditions, one would not sense anything really different about them from any other day. They were vigilant, active and alert.  Life went on as usual.

I went to bed that night, thankful that I had a warm house, plenty of food and water, and nothing in particular to worry about.  Life is what we make of it.  We can focus on the bad things, or we can be delighted with the good that we see.  We can obsess with our negative thoughts (I’m cold, this weather is freezing, what a miserable day) or we can simply observe and perhaps discover a new experience (watching, creating, enjoying… sometimes just breathing).

Cardinal
This male cardinal is a brilliant splash of color on a snowy day!

I drifted off to sleep that night feeling warm… focusing on the comfort I felt, wrapped up in cozy blankets.  I lay there, fostering thoughts about what it must be like to be a bird.  If I had my choice, I would have beautiful feathers that assisted in flight, and kept me warm.  I thought about opening my wings, and having the amazing ability to fly, flitting from tree to tree, and sometimes soaring into the sky to look out over the snow-covered land.  How delightful to feed on a vast field of seed, or to spend the day looking for insects and feasting all day long.  How about a little nap in the tree, perched high above the land?  There was no thought about deciding to fly alone or with a group of mates, either would be great.  In fact, there were no thoughts at all… only being.  That seemed to be the best feeling of all… simply being.  With this last thought I closed my eyes, still “being” a bird.  I felt no cold, no annoyance or irritation, no discomfort.  I welcomed the cloak of night and deep sleep… slipping away, and being.

This little chickadee seemed rather curious about me. Chickadees are a common sight year-around in our woodlands.
This little chickadee seemed rather curious about me. Chickadees are a common sight year-around in our woodlands.

© Day by Day the Farm Girl Way…


41 thoughts on “Tough Little Birds of Winter

  1. Oh, do you know how much I love this post?! You write so eloquently about the birds I love, Lori. I’ve written before about my connection with them, those tiny, fragile little creatures who seem so tough in the face of the many difficulties in their lives. They inspire me to persevere through the difficulties in my own life…I figure if they can do it, so can I.
    I’m so envious that you’ve got Pine Siskins! We had plenty of them last winter and they’ve been reported in our area for over a month already this year, but we haven’t seen a single one at our feeders yet. And those Red-winged Blackbirds are the birds I most look forward to in the spring. (Well, before the warblers arrive, that is.) Their songs are a sweet announcement that spring has finally come to Michigan. And the Flickers on the trees? So cool. You’ve made my night by posting this tribute to our feathered friends — thanks!

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    1. Well Kim, that is just a wonderful compliment! That made me feel good! I started watching birds about 10 years ago, but the last 5 (since we moved on this 10 acres) I have really taken an interest in knowing what birds live in our woodlands. There are others I haven’t mentioned… I only spoke of the ones I photographed on Christmas Day. We always see lots of pine siskins in the winter, along with gold finches. They are such sweet little birds!

      I am feeding a nut and berry mix that I buy in 20lb or larger bags. We also put out peanuts and pecans, and I recently found a good suet recipe I’m going to try. We keep a heated bird bath on the back porch, and Daisy’s heated water tub in the canyon attracts a lot of bird activity too. There is also corn and deer feed, which various birds eat.

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      1. I forgot to mention that the Cardinals are always the last ones at the feeders in the evening here too. We’ve got six feeders out right now with various seed types in them, along with two suet cakes, a heated birdbath, peanuts and more. Did I ever tell you that the deer stand on their hind legs and lick seed from the bird feeders right in front of our dining room window? I’ll have to show you a picture one of these days. Ok, we’re off to play in the snow today…hope to get some pretty pictures!

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    1. Thank you! We have many cardinals here all year long. I am always thrilled to hear them at first light and also at dusk. They seem to cheerily bring in the morning and close out the day with a happy chirp! We see cardinal nests in shrubs and bushes in the spring. Unfortunately, with nests so low to the ground, they are often raided by snakes, squirrels and other varmints. Still, many must survive as we have a large population of these bright birds!

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  2. This new page of your diary is absolutly wonderful and your birds’ pics, lovely ones. I hope your feathered friends will survive this particulary cold winter. We’ve got some starlings too, who come and eat feeds outside of our house. Hold on, spring is coming soon! 🙂

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    1. I appreciate the wonderful comment! A lot of folks don’t appreciate the starlings, but I find all birds have a beauty of their own. Each species is fun to observe… each having their own habits and ways of life. And each season brings new activity to watch. Thank you for sharing about your part of the world! It’s always interesting to compare notes and learn more about other regions!

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      1. A few days ago, while stirlings were eating feeds outside, i saw them afraid and fly away. And sudddenly appeared a buzzard. I was surprised beacause i”m living in a suburb. Unfortunatly, I coudn’t take a picture of the scene.

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        1. Any time a predator is in the area, the birds seem to know! We have a Cooper’s Hawk that often lingers nearby, but always, the little songbirds disappear as soon as he shows up. I have seen a few birds killed by hawks and owls. It is sad, but part of the circle of life.

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  3. A lovely post. It looks so cold. I never really understood how birds survive the extreme cold. Their feathers don’t look that warm to me…and there are no boots on their little feet. 🙂

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    1. Ha ha ha!! I have always marveled at the little “pantaloons” of feather that birds have on their upper legs. Feathers sure don’t look warm but they must be! Our chickens get somewhat stressed in the summer heat, and I notice many birds in the summer stretch wings out to cool a bit, and many flock to the sprinklers to keep cool. Feathers must be a lot warmer than they look!

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    1. You’re right Don… the winters are tough all around. I never think twice about what we spend on various feed and seed for all the critters year around. I chalk it up to entertainment, and giving back to nature!

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    1. Hmm, that is the 3rd photo where my caption disappeared. I am not fond of the new WordPress photo editor. I’ve had a good bit of trouble with it. Thank you for bringing this to my attention! That bird is a male cardinal. They are very common here and one of my favorites!

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      1. He really pops out from the background! And i’m not a fan of it either, not to mention that all my titles changed to “links” for a while, so they were horrible and blue. And underlined.

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  4. I love your reference to Aqualung:

    Sitting on the park bench —
    eyeing little girls with bad intent.
    Snot is running down his nose —
    greasy fingers smearing shabby clothes.
    Aqualung
    Drying in the cold sun —
    Watching as the frilly panties run.
    Aqualung
    Feeling like a dead duck —
    spitting out pieces of his broken luck.
    Whoa, aqualung

    However, that doesn’t fit with the birds too well except:

    Feeling like a dead duck —
    spitting out pieces of his broken luck.
    GREAT PICTURES!

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  5. A really lovely post that described these little hardy winter birds so well. It’s wonderful to see these birds, most of them totally unfamiliar to me, up close and in lovely photos. Cheers for taking the time to document the visitation of your wild birds and for feeding them through the harsh winter period. I love birds and watch them all of the time as they alight on our bird baths and spend time hunting through the garden for insects or stealing the chooks seeds. Perfect little survivors 🙂

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    1. Thank you so much! All birds, little and large, are a delight to watch. I find myself researching about them many times when I come across one I am not familiar with. I lose some tomatoes during the summer months, but I plant plenty to share with everyone!! I’m so glad you enjoyed the photos!

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    1. We have many mockingbirds around here. In the spring or summer months they like to perch in the highest trees and sing their extensive list of songs! I get tickled watching them as they are a mighty performer around other birds, brash and unafraid. They aren’t afraid of humans much either. I can usually get fairly close to them in the woods. Perhaps they like posing for the camera!

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  6. Thanks Sundog, I now have Cornell’s Ornithology page in my “Favorites.” Have you ever been to Ithaca, NY – the home of Cornell? It is a beautiful place with lots of deep running streams that have cut deep gorges. The town motto is “Ithaca is gorges,” lol.

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  7. I do love reading about these birds. Here, too, the cardinals are the last to settle in for the night, although the mockingbirds will dally. On the other hand, my mockingbirds will be up early in the springtime – there’s one who wakes me with song about 3 a.m. if the windows are open.

    I live in the land of pelicans, herons, gulls, osprey and such. I don’t get to see many songbirds here.There isn’t enough cover for them in my immediate neighborhood. I do have bluejays who nest every year about two blocks away, and they come over morning and evening for their shelled pecans. It’s such fun to see the babies when they first bring them – so awkward and nearly-ugly for a time!

    Last year, it was drought that gave our birds a hard time. There hadn’t been enough rain for the natural grasses to seed and so on, so even though the weather was lovely, they needed supplemental food. It is amazing how well they do – cold, icy, hot, dry, they just keep on. They’re marvelous creatures.

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    1. Ha ha! The mockingbirds are like me! Up early and cheery. I generally hear them at 6:00 or earlier in the summer as I head out to open our front gate. And I agree, most of the juveniles look funny and they ARE awkward. My favorite youngsters to watch are the crows. They are the most bumbling of all! And, they have a strange call until their calls develop!

      It’s always interesting to hear what species of birds live in various regions, and even the environmental conditions and the effects on them. They are indeed, resilient little creatures.

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    1. Since we sometimes rehab birds, our 3 Japanese Chin have learned to get along with them. Zoe is especially good around them. She has allowed them to snuggle with her a bit… though I sometimes feel her eyes bug out a little more and she seems a tad nervous!

      Yes, they can be fearless! The other day a little red-breasted nuthatch landed on me. I guess it thought I was a perch, like a tree! It didn’t stay long, but the feeling elated me!

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  8. Big Sister, I truly enjoyed reading about your “Tough Little Birds of Winter.” I felt I was right there with you, braving the cold, and enjoying the scenery; my toes got cold just reading about it :-). The pictures are fabulous, and I especially love the one of the Cardinal; he is so handsome.

    Reading your story makes me “rethink” my outlook on winter. I’m often to preoccupied thinking about how all that snow will affect my plans, that I don’t stop to think about God’s creatures who have to endure it outside of a warm house. …Beautiful post!

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    1. Thank you, Baby Sister! The cardinal seems to be a reader favorite! Why is it those male birds have the most flamboyant feathers? The snow does pair well with the bright colors… makes for great photographs.

      A bird feeder is a great way to help the birds in winter and gain a lot of entertainment! I’ll have to tell you which is a good feeder… some are not worth the money! Don’t be too hard on yourself… I’m not sure I’d manage very well with your busy schedule! My life is very lax compared to yours!

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  9. What a wonderful way to look at life, Lori. Oh to be a bird! Well, maybe anywhere else but here on the farmlet with my two cats!!! 😯

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    1. Ha ha ha!! How funny! We just had Zoe, our little female Japanese chin, when we raised our first orphaned mourning dove, Harold. Harold would nestle right up in Zoe’s hair. Zoe’s eyes would bug out and she looked terrified. She’d shake. She never did really feel at ease with Harold but she put up with that crazy feathered friend that felt the need to preen her hair and hop about on her! Harold was born in August, and wintered with us until February. He learned to fly in the house. He roosted on an old tool tray of FD’s, pooping neatly in the tray! You can’t imagine the elation when Harold was finally free to fly to trees and to peck about in our yard or the neighbors yard. Still, many months later he visited our backyard on a regular basis. It was HER home. LOL Yes, Harold was a SHE! Anyway, we had a lot of neighborhood cats, and Harold always managed… so maybe you COULD be a bird at the farmlet! You’d just have to be a bit clever, like Harold!

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  10. What amazing images! I love the one of the cardinal. Being from & in California, I have never seen one in real life. How astounding it must be to see that red against the white snow!

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    1. Thank you Melissa! Cardinals are common here, and they are beautiful indeed! They’re here all year long, which I love. You might enjoy a post I did this past summer called, “The Surprise of the Summer Tanager”, which is also a beautiful and rather reclusive woodland bird. I had never seen one before. They are a striking red as well. We don’t have many brilliantly colored birds, so when we’re lucky enough to spot one, I always hope to have my camera handy!

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