Black-capped chickadee, Photo by Mike Budd/USFWS

In like a lion? Out like a lamb? What kind of wild mood swings are still in store this March?

Nature has some predictable patterns regarding seasonal changes. Winter gives way to spring then summer followed by fall. But really what does that look like? The only one thing that happens the same each year is the changing length of day (thankfully). The weather can be sunny with the earliest plants reaching out from dormancy, then BAM, 9 inches of slush heavy snow!

We humans are bothered by such inconsistency, we like things to match our calendars. Unpredictable weather swings mess up our plans, keeping us constantly looking at the apps to see what might be in store. We weren’t always like that, we used to go out and look at the sky periodically. I do look out the window and watch birds to see how they manage, survive, even thrive. What can their behavior tell me about what they are adjusting to, or not. It’s a slow process.

If we think Nature and the wild things are following our notion of time schedules then we overlook the built in resilience of species. Birds set out on migration due to hormonal changes triggered by the photo-receptors in their brains. And yes, some birds seem to be on our calendar as to when they show up at our feeders. They certainly aren’t watching weather forecasts to make their plans. But within a particular species’ gene pool there’s a degree of plasticity, even if we don’t fully understand it. Some is genetic, some of it is learned, otherwise the species wouldn’t fare so well.

Bluebirds have been spotted since January (one male checking out the houses). Heard one singing on St. Patrick’s day. Most do migrate but some seem to hang back and move around during winter as they search for food – berries still attached to shrubs and trees. They don’t come to my feeders. Maybe they would if I put out meal worms but since they are so sporadic, I don’t want to encourage the opportunistic non-native house sparrows. In my neighborhood most berries are long gone.

Chickadees are the ones I watch more closely for clues. Summer insects are dormant, hidden in nooks and crannies of tree bark, wood/brush/stone piles as eggs, pupae or overwintering adults (think queen bumblebees in dead wildflower stalks). If we only see the world on the outer surface we miss a lot of clues. But chickadees pay close attention. During fall harvest they were caching food and now they are retrieving it. Scientists are also fascinated by the behavior of these spunky birds. Their tiny pea-sized brain actually expands as they go about preparing for winter. Being curious they inspect those nooks and crannies for their stored food as well as new morsels. They are one of the first birds to locate a moved feeder, and their calls alert others to learn that location as well.

The seed stalks I left up in my mini-prairie are a case in point. Surprisingly there are still seeds down in the bottom of common evening primrose seed capsules. (On March 12th while it was snowing I watched goldfinches pick apart aster seeds that had not blown away). The pithy stems are punctuated by tiny holes – I hope that means queen bumblebees have found shelter.

The woodpeckers and nuthatches will come to suet but they spend more time poking around in and under tree bark for insects. Other birds are starting to nibble among tree leaf buds for tiny insects that are waiting to emerge. This year I’m going to watch spruce and pine tips more closely for that action as spruce budworms are warbler food.

Lesson learned: don’t tidy up last year’s seed stalks until into May. Think of it as a pantry for wild things. Robins will flip around last year’s fallen leaves and in the mulch for ground bugs. We might see it as messy but the wild pantry helps early arrivals find food to tie them over until insects emerge.
And with the recent weather damage to trees and shrubs, the deer found it easier to eat the young twig ends and buds that had been out of reach. Wildlife adapts. Sometimes it just means waiting out the mood swings.

March 18 was one of those crazy days: bitter cold, strong winds, sun-snow-sun-snow as if winter was having a hissy-fit. My backyard was a frenzy of birds – 19 species (including 1 white-crowned sparrow) came for water as well as seeds and some dried cranberries (for the robin). The crow trio were out in the field, one collecting plant debris for the nearby nest. Even the rabbit came out to join the squirrel and chipmunk. I’m running out of the stored wildflower seeds I had kept back.

Can’t wait to see if spring will show up on March 20.

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