Friday change of pace: The birds of winter

It’s December, and it’s cold outside. The birds are hungry. Some folks buy bird seed and put it in feeders to attract wild birds. On the farm, we just feed the chickens, ducks and geese their regular cuisine and the wild birds take advantage – especially those cheeky wild turkeys.

All the fair weather fowl — the wild ducks and geese, swallows, some hawks, blackbirds, and a lot of songbirds — have flown off to warmer climes where I assume they hang out at the beach. But we still have the tough guys, the hardy species who laugh at the cold, sharing the frosty days and bitter nights with us.  These birds, both domestic and wild, provide ample winter amusement.

We have chickadees, the ubiquitous magpies, Eurasian pigeons, flocks of brazen wild turkeys, Hungarian partridge, starlings, and occasional chukars, pheasants and sage grouse – along with our domestic ducks, geese and chickens. And not long ago a small flock of robins stopped by for a few days on their way south, feasting on apples fallen from our trees.

I’m convinced that after the great apocalypse, at least two lifeforms will survive – cockroaches and magpies. Magpies are survivors. They eat anything and exploit any situation. They’re smart and crafty. They have a sixth sense to know when you’re harmless or dangerous. They flock to eat our chicken feed and we suspect it’s a magpie that periodically gets into a nesting box, pecks open the top of an egg, and enjoys a raw egg feast.

We especially enjoy the tiny black-capped chickadees. In the summer, they’re higher in the mountains. But a flock of 20-30 has made our farmyard their winter home. They are invariably curious, busy, and cheerful with their chick-a-dee-dee-dee song. They spend most of their time on the ground, flitting sprightly here, there and everywhere, searching for weed seeds.

Our four ducks and four geese don’t mind the icy weather. But they are disappointed in the morning when their small pond is frozen over. I go out and break some of the ice so they have at least some space to swim in. They are fun to watch as they comically synchronize a lot of their antics, all flapping their wings at once, all honking and quacking at the same time at some perceived threat, all bobbing upside down in the pond at the same time, their tails sticking up in the air and their heads straight down in the water.

I’m glad I’m not a goose. They sleep standing on one leg, the other leg tucked up in their feathers so you can’t see it. And their neck twisted around with the head tucked in their features so you can’t see it, either. They look like a football stuck on a stick.

We chase wild turkeys away from our feeders a half dozen times a day. At least three flocks of sneaky turkeys frequent our place. Some of them seem to segregate by age. Four big toms hang out together and bully smaller turkeys at the feeders. In the evening, they climb up a steep cliff across the creek and use the elevation to fly into tall trees to roost.

Our dogs tolerate all the birds. They’re confused when we try to get them to chase away the turkeys. On really cold nights the dogs sleep in the chicken coop on the thick bed of wood shavings. Underneath the dry top, the shavings and chicken poop slowly decompose, generating heat that keeps the dogs warm. And they protect the chickens from any marauding skunks or racoons.

Winter is a rather quiet time at the farm. The days are short and nights are icy cold. But the birds of winter help keep things cheery and fun.