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Rain, rain, go away



Published: Sat, January 15, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



Sometimes I envy those who live along streams and rivers where ducks, grebes, herons, and kingfishers can be counted as yard birds. But for the last two years, and especially the last six months, I consider myself lucky to live on a high, dry ridge. But even here the ground has been saturated for months. The dogs can't even roll in the grass and not get soaked. And I can't take a walk and keep my feet dry.

Just a few years ago we experienced a severe drought. Ground water levels were at all time lows, and some reservoirs even dried up. And drought has plagued the southwest U.S. for several years, but recent rains have restored the flow to many rivers.

Temperatures exhibit similar variations. Some summers I write about how plants and animals cope with extreme heat, yet over the last two years the thermometer never reached 90 degrees. Some winters I explain how life deals with extreme cold. Less than four weeks ago, for example, I recorded two degrees F on the back porch, yet as I write this, it's 60 degrees outside.

One constant

Variation is the one constant in nature. It is literally what makes living systems tick. The genetic variation of plants and animals allows them to adapt to an ever-changing, unpredictable environment. Sure, summers are warmer, winters are cooler, and fall and spring are transitional seasons. But annual extremes are completely unpredictable. Perhaps this is why weather reports are the most watched part of TV news.

Though we obsess about the extremes of weather, we must nevertheless deal with them. In our every day lives we allow ourselves extra travel time, we detour around flood zones and mud slides, and we shovel snow. The weather even affects how we enjoy our backyards.

During mild winter weather a common concern is a lack of birds at feeders. I invariably hear from readers who say their birds have vanished. My best explanation is that mild weather frees them to pursue more preferred natural foods. When temperatures inch above freezing, insects and invertebrates become active. And most birds prefer live food over seed or suet.

For example, over the last ten minutes I've seen 11 birds at my feeders: two mourning doves, two titmice, two chickadees, two juncos, one white-breasted nuthatch, one cardinal, and one red-bellied woodpecker. If it was 20 degrees and snowing, there would be at least 50 birds in view all day long.

Testing preference

It's easy to test birds' preference for live food over seeds; I've done it several times. Scatter a few hundred mealworms on the ground beneath the feeders, and in minutes the ground will be alive with birds. And they will leave as soon as the mealworms are gone. Wild birds love live food. In fact, if you want to spoil your birds, offer mealworms. Birds will reward your generosity with their presence, but it comes at a price. Mealworms are considerably more costly than seed.

When the weather turns cold and temperatures drop below freezing, insects and other invertebrates scurry back to cover. And birds suddenly rediscover their fondness for seeds, nuts, and suet. Add a little snow and drop the temperature into the teens, and birds flock to feeders.

By the way, if finches seemed conspicuously absent from the above list of birds at my feeders, give yourself a gold star. Finches eat seeds exclusively, and I didn't fill the finch tubes this morning. Hence, no finches.

If you'd like to see more birds at your feeders during mild winter weather, offer mealworms. Or just be patient. I'm sure we'll have some real winter weather eventually. In fact, the extended forecast calls for frigid temps in just a few days. So be careful what you wish for. If it had been cold the last few weeks, there might be six feet of snow on the ground now.

(For a list of mealworm suppliers and instructions for raising your own, send me $1 and a self-addressed stamped envelope.)

sshalaway@aol.com




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