John Kelly's Washington

Humans may hate winter, but animals dislike it even more

A painted bunting, which is usually far south this time of year, snacks in Bowie.
A painted bunting, which is usually far south this time of year, snacks in Bowie. (Photo By Bill Hubick)
By John Kelly
Wednesday, February 17, 2010

I know what you think of the snow. You hate it. But what do our local animals think? Has anyone thought to ask them?

Bill Peters of Dunkirk, Md., said his two Labrador retrievers, Fred and Wilma, are, like most humans around these parts, sick of the snow. Oh sure, they liked it at first -- romping, frolicking, even, occasionally, gamboling -- but once it got over shoulder height, it complicated every dog's favorite pastime.

The snow made the pair's usual backyard relief stations unreachable. Wrote Bill: "I've had to resort to 'trench warfare' in that I've had to dig various paths in the deep snow so that each can find a scented area that they would do their business in. They prefer to go in areas that they are comfortable in and each has a few to choose from normally.

"Indeed, if you were to visit, you'd think I had a paintball maze set up with no customers -- no splattered paint, just yellow and brown snow here and there."

If I were to visit? No thanks, Bill. As appealing as that sounds, I have my own Jackson Pollock Verdun in my back yard.

For wild animals, it's the other end of the digestive process that's been complicated by the snow. Birds especially are having a tough time finding food. This has been a good winter to have a bird feeder in the back yard.

"At a time like this, it really does make a difference for a lot of birds," said Greg Butcher, director of bird conservation for the National Audubon Society, who watches birds from his house in Reston. "The snow just completely covers a lot of natural food sources."

Ground-feeding birds such as white-throated sparrows and dark-eyed juncos typically look for weed seeds in grasses and shrubs, which are covered this year by a mantle of white. A feeder full of black oil sunflower seeds, mixed seed with millet or suet can be a lifesaver.

"People that are feeding birds are just loaded with birds at feeders," Greg said.

The season actually started slowly. "In November I was getting calls: 'Why aren't any birds coming to our bird feeders?' "

Part of the reason was that some birds -- pine siskins, purple finches, red-breasted nuthatches -- are irruptive species. Sometimes they spend the winter in Canada; sometimes they spend the winter here.

"This winter they all stayed up in Canada," Greg said. "They're probably happy they did. I think a lot of Canada is warmer than we are."

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