For those who’ve been away or are just awakening from a long winter’s nap, it’s been a cold, nasty winter. The New York Times reported that the average January temperature recorded in Central Park was 4 degrees below normal.
By Bill Lawyer
For those who’ve been away or are just awakening from a long winter’s nap, it’s been a cold, nasty winter. The New York Times reported that the average January temperature recorded in Central Park was 4 degrees below normal. Last year it was 5 degrees above normal. And the snowfall is way above average. We’ve already had 27 inches, which is nearly twice as much as we usually get in an entire season.
Streets are straining, splitting, and “potholing” as our public works crews scrape and salt the road surfaces, creating saline slushy and slippery pools along curbs and intersections.
Nevertheless, despite a few school closings and business shutdowns, life has gone on. If you’ve been able to get out of our own driveway — which has been a challenge if you’ve run out of ice melt — you’ve been able to get to the store for food and supplies.
Rye’s wildlife, on the other hand, is having a tough time of it. What with the heavy, crusted snow cover in yards and fields, predators have to work overtime to find the food they need to survive.
This was brought home to me dramatically the other day. I was walking my dog around noontime north on Overlook Place, when I heard the high-pitched call of a bird overhead.
I looked up — from my hopscotch-like navigating on the road (no sidewalk) to avoid salt lake slurries and black ice — to see a scene right out of PBS “Nature” unfold.
Above me, circling and calling out in the sky was a bird of prey – probably a Cooper’s hawk, by the size of it. And, off to my right I saw what was definitely a Cooper’s hawk, flying by me, just a few feet above my head. In its mouth was a bloody animal of some kind – a large bird or squirrel, by the size of it.
Coming right behind the hawk was a large crow, swooping down above my head in hot pursuit. In the food chain, crows are sometimes the predator, sometimes the prey. Crows are very smart and they will eat anything.
I can’t tell what the final outcome of this aerial battle was because the birds disappeared in the distance heading toward Milton Road. But the scene did make me think about the larger picture of wildlife survival, and it brought to mind a program I attended the previous week at the Rye Free Reading Room, sponsored by the Rye Garden Club and the Little Garden Club of Rye.
The presenter was Dr. Stephen Kress, Vice President For Bird Conservation of the National Audubon Society. He is a specialist in the subject of building and/or restoring bird-friendly wildlife habitats. His primary work has been in restoring habitat for puffins in Maine. And, he has developed his own, extensive “bird gardens” at his home outside Ithaca.
Kress began by telling a full-house audience that he is against using bird feeders and commercial birdseed. Most of these products are not “native,” he explained, and they have the effect of making birds become dependent upon them.
He went on to point out that setting up birdfeed stations is akin to the way waterfowl hunters use decoys and feed to attract “sitting ducks”. The same is true of squirrels, which often are just as dependent upon feeders as birds.
“Not only do native birds depend on native plants, but the reverse is also the case – some 400 species of plants depend on birds eating their seeds and then expelling the remains,” Kress explained. “And their droppings help fertilize the soil. In this way, more plants are raised to supply food for more birds. “
While I can’t prove it, I’d be willing to bet that the hawk fleeing with its prey in its mouth got its prey from a neighborhood bird feeder.
Kress’s “take-away” is that if wildlife habitats are protected and enhanced, winter birds will be able to have plenty of food to make it through the coldest, snowiest winters.
He showed slides of a wide range of native plants that provide food for winter birds – and not just seeds. Other plant-related foods are fruits that remain on trees and bushes, and insects in the bark of trees.
And as for those food-chain straining birds of prey, Kress said that both evergreen and deciduous bushes, shrubs, brush piles, and compost provide prey with food, and offer great protection against being caught by predators unawares.
At least they have a fighting chance, right in our backyards.