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“Nature in the Little Finger Lakes” by Angela Cannon Crothers

Winter Birds

By Angela Cannon Crothers

February 2015

I saw a feather falling with the snow, a grey-brown feather, probably a breast feather from a crow-sized bird. It was a bit of a surprise, seeing it waltzing down amidst the stellar flakes. A feather is an amazing thing. Feathers are made of keratin, the same protein that forms our nails and hair; their design is further specialized for purposes of camouflage, breeding, and insulation such as with down feathers, or the contour feathers which enable flight. A bird has ten primary feathers, five for each wing like the fingers of a hand. Feathers are adapted to hold in heat allowing our local winter birds to survive the cold and stay dry even paddling around in open frigid water. The feather has inspired many of humanity’s inventions as well.

Some of us have disdain for winter. Others embrace it. Wintering birds here adapt and thrive, all feelings aside. Red-tailed hawks along the woods edges, and harriers with their tell-tale white rumps, scan the berth of winter fields to hunt for voles tunneling through the snow and surfacing to glean winter seeds. There are pairs of bald eagles overwintering here in the Little Lakes, including both an adult and immature eagle on the south end of Honeoye Lake. Bald eagles will fish the open areas of water but adapt to scavenging carcasses along the roads as well. And although we associate robins and bluebirds with the arrival of spring, many overwinter in small flocks here too. Their diet becomes more dependent on what is available: dried, wild fruits like the berries of dogwood and sumac, and the occasional winter hatch of insects.

Birds like the chickadee are further adapted to our cold climate with the ability to enter a mini-hibernation stage called torpor on especially frigid nights. In torpor the bird’s heart rate, breathing, and metabolism slow down enough to preserve vital energy resources. Tufted tit mice, goldfinches, cardinals, Carolina wrens, and chickadees at my feeder depend on the calories I put out, and so I often wonder if songbirds haven’t created some additional form of adaptation by training me to feed them.

When I think of that feather falling with the snow I remember a book I read long ago called Illusions, by Richard Bach. The symbolism of the feather was, in essence, that what we focus on is what becomes our reality - we choose what we attract. I like to think that this hypothesis can go further than just our desires, but that it also affects our perspective on any given situation - like the cold of winter - and our willingness to trust in our relationship to our environment. Think of all the creative winter adaptations we humans have intentionally made tangible. Adaptations evolve into miracles of necessity; they are the nuance all life brings into each season, be it one of challenge or ease. Overwintering, and survival, can be approached with cantankerousness or grace: something to endure, or to adapt to with an attitude of gratitude, if we choose to let beauty of the season float gently in.

Editor’s Note: Angela Cannon Crothers is a naturalist and writer who teaches at Finger Lakes Community College and with The Finger Lakes Museum. Here are some columns that she has written about the Little Finger Lakes. Her columns also appear in the Lake Country Weekender newspaper.

Visit Angela’s website at: Angela Cannon Crothers

Read the Lake Country Weekender at: Lake Country Weekender