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

A Tree for Wildlife

By Angela Cannon Crothers

December 2015

Years back I was living in Vermont when a helicopter flew over the Green Mountain National Forest to select a Christmas tree for the White House. Two towering balsam firs were selected, and one was gifted to the elementary school in the nearby small town of Manchester, Vermont. I was asked to help with the celebration which would take its theme from a children’s book, The Night Tree, by Eve Bunting. This was a Christmas story like no other I had ever read. The family in the story made Christmas Eve about giving to the wildlife in their area, about showing gratitude and appreciation for the natural world, as well as one another.

I was hooked.

Ever since then I have made most of my Christmas Eves involve decorating a tree for wildlife. One of my first Christmases here in Naples, with crafted peanut butter seed cones, popcorn garlands, and rosehip adornments in tow on a sled, my young son, baby, former husband, an old college friend, and I sledded out into the woods before the early sunset and decorated a wild Christmas tree. A first snow of the season lighted the ground, the sunset shown purple and pink, and just like in the story, we kept ourselves warm with a thermos of hot cocoa and wooly mittens.

I continued the tradition for years after. Granted, sometimes the wild Christmas tree we chose was in the yard in order to fit in the time needed for other pressing holiday obligations. But throughout all these holiday seasons, I still honor my tradition to put out a feast of seeds, nuts, suet, and apples for the animals who share this landscape with us.

Creating such a family tradition teaches our children to consider not just our human circle, but our larger family in nature. Spending some time during the hustle and bustle of the holiday to string popcorn and Cheerios, make suet and seed, or go on hikes to gather wild rosehips and curly dock seed for a separate outdoor tree grounds the family, and the senses, to the season at hand—the winter solstice.

These are the darkest days of the year; a prelude to deep cold and great endurance for our feathered and four-legged brethren. Remembering to give to all beings reminds us of our responsibilities to the environment and to the spiritual and physical reciprocity that exists between humans and animals. Such an activity builds on the mystery and magic of the season over all.

You can get creative with your tree for wildlife, like gluing corn husks on sunflower heads to make fanciful sunflowers or by making little wreathes of nuts and berries (just keep your ingredients and adornments safe for consumption). Hang sliced apples or leftover Indian corn from Thanksgiving. The following are a few simple feeder recipes you and your family can try and maybe start a whole new holiday tradition of your own.

Suet balls

Melt meat fats and allow to cool slightly. Stir in small amounts of any of the following: cornmeal, millet birdseed, peanuts, raisins, peanut butter, dried blueberries, cranberries, or unsalted sunflower seeds, until the mixture is too thick to stir. Use your hands to make round balls (kids like this part) or press into muffin tins. Cool in the freezer until hard enough to handle and use a skewer to poke a hole into the ball for string. Because the suet balls can tend to stay on the soft side and slide off their string hangers, you can also put them into onion skin or mesh bags, tie them with a ribbon for hanging. Nuthatches, woodpeckers, and chickadees are especially fond of these.

Cookie-cutter ornaments

Using cookie cutters, cut shapes out of stale or toasted bread and thread a hanging loop through with raffia (natural ribbon) and a thick needle. You can smear peanut butter or suet onto the toast, too.

Garlands for the birds

Pop up plain unsalted popcorn and use cranberries, soaked raisons, Cheerios, peanuts in their shells, and dried fruits to create strings of edible garlands. Give children shorter pieces of twine or raffia and thick needles, or small crochet hooks, to string the treats with. Avoid clear floss or line; keep it natural.

The best pine cone feeders ever

Go for a winter day hike and gather pine cones. Tie a decorative string around one end of each cone so it can hang. Smear the pinecone with all natural peanut butter (worry about sticking the little birds’ beaks together is actually an old wives’ tale). Spread unsalted unshelled sunflower seeds or black oil sunflower seeds on a cookie sheet. Roll pine cones over the sunflower seed. Use a butter knife to help press seed into the spaces between the cone scales.

Don’t forget to scatter some sliced apples and seed below your tree for ground feeders, like mourning doves and other critters. And if you can get some fresh water out there, do that, too. Animals are often searching for water to drink in wintertime.

Many blessings to you—and all our family—this holiday season.

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