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The non-stop cycle of feast and famine is fascinating

Some birds stay put and eke out a harsh living, battling heavy snowfalls and cold temperatures, says outdoors columnist
20191208_yard birds (Hawke) (19)
A chickadee rips into sumac clusters that can be found around the photographer's back deck. David Hawke/OrilliaMatters

The wildlife of our area, if they are programmed to stay and survive winter, are subjected to a rolling schedule of feast then famine.

Food abundance can and does disappear overnight, whether the cause be weather (hey, it snowed last night... a lot!) or migration (hey, where'd everybody go?). To get by until springtime many changes must be undertaken, sometimes physiological, sometime with behaviours.

No doubt you have all heard about how bears have to fatten up in the autumn to have enough energy stored within themselves to feed their internal systems without daily input of a food of some sorts.

Similar story with groundhogs, although groundhogs are true hibernators and have zero need for supplemental energy; bears are just light sleepers and often get up in the middle of the winter for a pee or stretch or to give birth to adorable cubs.

So the 'feast' for them is when apples are ripe, corn is juicy and acorns are plentiful. 'Famine' is the long haul sitting in the den until next April.

Several species of birds stick around for the winter, such as blue jays, crows, grouse, chickadees and nuthatches.

During the summer months these birds polish off thousands upon thousands of caterpillars and bugs; but come October all those juicy yum-yums are either hidden in a fuzzy cocoon, died after laying eggs, or have vamoosed southwards.

While many songbirds do indeed follow the grub-line (bad pun) south there are about 18 species that stay put and eke out a harsh living... eating seeds. Hard, dry seeds. Not quite the same delectable dining as summer afforded.

But even the switch from increasingly rare-to-find insects to abundant weed seeds can go against them.

A heavy snowfall will bury the weed stalks (which is great for the plant as seeds can now be dumped onto the wet ground) and force the wee balls of feathery fluff to reconsider options for the ol' diet. And that's where bird feeders and berry-producing shrubs come into play.

Perhaps your feeding station is like ours, with black-capped chickadees showing up within moments of the feeders being replenished with sunflower seeds, cracked corn and peanuts. Their mini-famine is over and now let the feasting begin!

Darting in from a nearby branch a seed is snatched and brought back to the branch for careful placement between toes and a severe whacking with a beak quickly reveals food, glorious food inside the shell. (Hmm, does a chickadee ever accidently whack a toe with an awkward beak thrust somewhat like when I hit a finger with a poorly swung hammer? I smell a government grant in the making...).

Of course we all "know" how nuthatches eat only every other seed taken from the feeder, hiding the odd numbered ones in tree bark to find later. Preparing for the famine, that's what nuthatches do best.

So what happens if I'm late filling said feeders?

Do the birds come close to starving due to my reluctance to don winter boots and coat at some ungodly pre-dawn hour? Of course not, as they know that times of lean pickings just means a bit more effort is required to find the natural parts of their diet.

Chickadees will be seen ripping apart fruit clusters of staghorn sumac in search of spiders and hibernating insects, right? Right? Isn't that what I told you on that memorable school field trip to the wildlife centre 20 or 40 years ago? Surely you remember.

Anyhoo... seems I was wrongly informed about what the chickadees were doing, and thusly you were ill-informed at the time, and verily I have to come clean and share a recent observation with you.

A couple days ago I was photographing chickadees around the feeder (I know, why do I need even more pictures of chickadees flitting around the feeder. Good wife says it's a hobby so I'm to enjoy the experience; but really, do I need another 15 pictures to go with the 200 or so already saved?) But I digress.

A couple of the black-masked cuties were ripping into the sumac clusters that can be found around the back deck. Click, click goes the shutter and I enjoy the experience. (There, happy now?)

But later, when the images are viewed on the computer screen the true behaviour of the birds is revealed. They are not prodding the fruits for hibernating spiders (and really, do spiders even hibernate?) but rather they were stuffing the cluster with sunflower seeds!

Preparing for the coming famine. I went back outside and took a close look at the sumac, and found several sunflower seeds tucked neatly inside!

Thanks to a telescopic lens the real intent of our local chickadees has been revealed. Kind of like hiding Christmas chocolates around the house... you may have lots now, but in a few weeks it will be satisfying to know that they are there waiting for you to 'discover' them again.