Winter wildlife

I’m developing a new talk and slide show on attracting wildlife to the garden, so I’m thinking about animals more than plants these days. Where have all the critters gone for the winter? What are they doing, and when do they become active? I discovered recently that red foxes are breeding now–their breeding season normally runs from January to March–and I’m hearing from a lot of people that foxes are unusually visible right now.

Grey squirrels also breed in winter and raise their first litter of the year in February or March. Our ubiquitous eastern grey squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) is native throughout the eastern half of the United States and into Canada. It’s native here and is not a problem to gardens: squirrels primarily eat nuts and seeds, plus the occasional egg or insect. They do not dig up most plants (although they are sometimes known to snack on tulip bulbs). The story is different in parts of the world where they are not native: grey squirrels were introduced into Australia (where they were eliminated in the 1970s) and into Great Britain, where they are displacing the native red squirrels. Google “grey squirrels UK” and you will find articles and websites about controlling alien grey squirrels through shooting, trapping, poisoning, and selling the meat (presumably not the poisoned meat) in supermarkets. You’ll also find the various wildlife groups weighing in, and not always in the way you might think. Kind of like our unwelcome European starlings and sparrows.

Woodchucks and chipmunks both hibernate, but like the foxes and squirrels, rabbits and deer are active all winter. Rabbits take shelter in the deep leaf litter in my tree islands; they nibble grass and young twigs. In the back of the garden, we sometimes see a place where deer have bedded down overnight–all the dried plants are flattened. And of course we see the damage they do to young woody plants in particular.

Hawks have been particularly active lately in this area. I see them soaring above me every day, and I’m always happy to welcome them. They and the foxes are our best hope to keep the rabbit population in check. Other frequently observed winter birds are woodpeckers, particularly the very common red-bellied woodpecker, native sparrows, nuthatches, chickadees (I hear them every day), cardinals, blue jays, and juncos. Lately I’ve had small flocks of mourning doves in my backyard. When the flocks break up into single birds and pairs, I’ll know their breeding season is underway.

We’re going to have a storm tonight and tomorrow. But today or Sunday are both wonderful days for getting out and observing the winter wildlife. And don’t forget to keep up with your winter pruning!

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