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Speaking of Nature

Speaking of Nature: Tasty treats tempt visitors

I live way out in the country. It’s the kind of place that is very quiet and very dark at night. I’ve lived in my house for eight years and ever since I moved in, I’ve been putting out bird feeders to attract the birds that live in the area. It’s easy to do and a lot of fun, too, because you get a close up look at many of the birds that might otherwise stay hidden.

On the back of my house I have a porch that looks out over a 5-acre meadow, which means I have a very good view of the surrounding countryside. It also means that my house is out in the open and I get a certain group of birds coming to my feeders that might be different from the birds that would live in a more wooded area. For example, just this weekend I saw a bluebird on my porch railing. It appeared to have followed a flock of goldfinches and was exploring.

Still, some of the woodland birds do make the journey to my feeders. There is a pair of chickadees that comes every evening and that’s starting to attract some attention. Other chickadees in the area will tag along to see if they can find a good source of food. In the winter, the chickadees will form small flocks and by December I may have six to eight of them who come on a regular basis. A steady supply of food is so valuable to the birds that they’ll memorize its location and come back day after day.

But birds aren’t the only animals that do this. There are also squirrels that seem to magically appear once the snow starts falling. At one point last winter, there were three gray squirrels and two red squirrels that would brighten up the porch with their drama. It turns out that red squirrels are extremely sassy and they are able to chase away the much larger gray squirrels. Sometimes they fight so much they seem to forget to eat.

But birds and squirrels aren’t the only visitors I have. At night there are other animals that come to the feeders. If there is snow on the ground, I can often find the tiny footprints of white-footed mice. I’ve even found the tracks of hawks and owls that were clearly coming for the mice. But the most dramatic nighttime visitors are the raccoons.

They didn’t appear in the first year that I lived in my house, but once an exploring raccoon stumbled upon my bird feeders, the word went out into the raccoon community. Ever since then I seem to have a single raccoon that shows up in the spring and early summer. But sometime in August that single raccoon, which turns out to be a female, by the way, will show her kits where the feeder is. That’s when things get busy!

As I mentioned, my house is in the kind of place that gets very quiet and very dark at night. It’s so quiet that you can pick up on odd sounds that mean there are visitors around. The sound that suggests raccoons are visiting is a clunking noise that gets made when the swing arm from which my birdfeeder hangs is swung into a metal pole that holds an outdoor torch. When I hear that it usually means I have a visitor.

With winter on the way the young raccoons are trying to fatten up. They’re beginning to act like adults, but they still travel together for companionship and a sense of security. I imagine it might be scary to spend the night alone, so I would probably hang out with my brother and sister, too. This time there were three of them together, but I could only get two in a photo as they tried to slip away without getting into trouble. They meant no harm. They were just hungry. So I let them go.

Bill Danielson has worked as a naturalist for 16 years. In that time, he has been a national park ranger, a wildlife biologist and a field researcher. He currently works as a high school chemistry and biology teacher. His Speaking of Nature column runs weekly in The Recorder, except for the first Thursday of each month, which is when his Kids and Critters column for young readers appears. To contact Bill, or to learn more about his writing, visit www.speakingofnature.com

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