Wildlife in Winter: What’s Out There, Anyway?

Wildlife in Winter by Shiela Fuller

It’s cold outside and there is snow on the ground. Have you ever wondered what happens to wildlife in winter?

Wild creatures have been preparing for winter long before it arrives. During the summer and fall some animals are getting ready for hibernation.

Hibernation occurs because food becomes difficult to find when the air outside gets cold. It is a sleep-like state when the animal’s body temperature will lower, their breathing will slow down and body functions like urinating and defecating will cease. The black bear hibernates. In late summer or fall, the black bear will locate a suitable den and then prepare it for winter sleeping by filling it with leaves and debris for bedding. Chipmunks and brown bats hibernate, too. Chipmunks prepare for hibernation by filling their cheeks until they are bursting with seeds. Then they will store them in their burrows for winter.  Brown bats will huddle in clusters with a lot of other bats to keep warm during the coldest months.

Reptiles like garter snakes and box turtles bruminate. When the temperatures turn cold, the reptiles will protect themselves by burrowing below the freeze line in the soil. The reptile’s body functions will slow down just like the mammals that hibernate. The reptiles stay awake but are sluggish.

Not all animals hibernate or bruminate. For the animals that don’t, winter can be hard on them. Food can be difficult to find under a layer of snow. This will prompt some animals to venture to locations outside of their normal range leaving tracks as they go. Tracking animals can be fun on your first snow day.      

possum prints in the first snow of December 2014.

possum prints in the first snow of December 2014.

Before you head outside in the snow for your track walk, look up what kinds of animals are found in your region of the country and draw simple pictures of their tracks. A reference book like Mammal Tracks & Sign: A Guide to North American Species by Mark Elbroch may be helpful. When you go outside, take your drawings and you will have your own track identification guide. Take pictures of the tracks, too.

The first tracks you see might be your own. Notice that you leave a trail as you walk. What kind of shape do your boots make in the snow? Are your tracks close together or far apart? Step in the tracks of another person. Make running tracks, if the snow is not too deep.

Search for animal tracks. Do you have a dog? Take your dog along for the winter walk. Check out your dog’s tracks in the snow. Compare your tracks to your dog’s.
Look for bird tracks under a bird feeder. Are they all the same or different? Follow the birds’ tracks. Why do they end?    Here’s a link to some tracks:


Shiela Fuller has been a Cornell University Project Feeder Watch participant for many years and an avid birder since 1988. Currently, she enjoys writing picture books, yoga, chicken raising, wildlife photography, and is the legacy keeper for her family.


Welcome the Birds With Make-Your-Own Suet Cakes.

With days getting shorter and cooler, we often lament the coming of winter. When we move indoors it seems like we miss out on some of the creatures in the natural world.  But, you can have birds in your yard all winter long by spreading out seeds and suet to attract them.  Here’s Shiela Fuller’s recipe for HOMEMADE SUET:

HOMEMADE SUET for bird feeding

Feeding winter birds is a rewarding winter activity for adults and children. The general agreement is if you provide winter foods, you should also provide a water source and hiding places for protection from predators. This means, place your feeder near trees or bushes that give quick cover.
There are many different varieties of bird species to see right outside your window. Common seed eating varieties are the blue jay, tufted titmouse, and black capped chickadee. If you are lucky you might catch a glimpse of an Eastern towhee or yellow-rumped warbler passing through on migration. The insect eating winter birds such as the downy woodpecker, the red-bellied woodpecker, and the nuthatch especially enjoy suet.
Making your own healthy version of bird suet is so easy to do.

Gather the ingredients:
1. bacon fat (the leftover liquid fat after you’ve cooked it)-throughout the year collect the leftover fat in a jar and keep in your fridge.
2. rolled oats
3. peanut butter
4. dried fruits , nuts, and/or seeds
5. commercial bird seed
Combine one part bacon fat and peanut butter and melt in a saucepan. Add the additional ingredients to make a thick concoction.
Cool and pour into an empty box that give will your suet shape. A half gallon milk or juice carton is perfect for this.  Place in freezer.    suet photoWhen solid, peel back the carton and slice the cake into ONE INCH THICK pieces that you can insert into your suet feeder or hang from a wire basket.

Keep the remaining suet in the freezer until needed. Since this has no artificial preservatives, recommended use is at 38* F or colder.

It won’t be long before the birds will make your backyard their home.

Shiela Fuller has been a Cornell University Project Feeder Watch participant for many years and an avid birder since 1988. Currently, she enjoys writing picture books, yoga, chicken raising, wildlife photography, and is the legacy keeper for her family.

Find the Forest For Summer Fun.

Now that summer vacation is here, why not try taking the kids for a real adventure by exploring nature’s wonders at a nearby forest or state park.  These beautiful, natural areas are in every state and many have free activities for the whole family.  Camping, hiking, bird watching, water sports, fishing and learning about plants and animals are some of the things you can discover at your local park, forest or nature preserve.

Visit: http://www.discovertheforest.org   for tips on how to enjoy nature, how to be safe in wild areas, and DID YOU KNOW facts.  All you have to do is enter your state and a list of all the forests and wildlife areas will appear.   Discover your inner explorer by visiting a forest or natural area this summer.  You won’t be sorry.

Boston Arboretum

Boston Arboretum

Want Eggs? How About Raising Some Chickens.

My fellow writer and occasional visitor to this blog, Shiela Fuller is back with her wonderful post on how to raise your own free range chickens. Here’s Shiela:

Long before there were confined feeding animal operations (CAFO), people raised egg laying chickens in their backyards. As the inhumane treatment of mass produced farm animals for food becomes widely recognized, more individuals are turning to traditions of the past and again raising egg layers for their own use.

The instructions that follow for raising chickens are easy, but these are live animals that require care and supervision just as domestic animals do.


The prospective chicken owner must first research and determine if their municipality has regulations against the keeping of farm animals. If not, begin the search for a hatchery.

LOCATE YOUR NEAREST HATCHERY:  Your two day old chicks will most likely be shipped by U.S. mail. A decreased distance from home to hatchery means your chicks will arrive quicker, less stressed and in better condition. Don’t be tempted to purchase the cute chicks you see for sale at your local farm and garden store. All chicks look alike at two days old, but at four months your cute chicks could grow up to look like this:   spotted chicken


Plan to have your chicks arrive late spring/early summer. Order an egg laying breed such as the Rhode
Island Red or a mixed breed. Order your chicks with their beaks intact. You will have to ask for this as
hatcheries raise chicks by the tens of thousands and debeaking is done routinely as a matter of safety
and well-being for the large numbers that are kept in confinement.

HOW MANY TO ORDER:   Order the number of chicks dependent on your available space. If your adult hens will free range on an acre, 15 chicks will be suitable. If you are limited to keeping your adult hens in a backyard enclosure, six chicks will be sufficient. Unless you plan to go into the business of selling eggs, 15 egg layers will create a sufficient supply. Once egg laying begins, hens routinely lay one egg per day for up to two years. They lay more productively in summer than winter, too. This is because egg laying is dependent on the number of daylight hours.

YOU’VE PLACED THE ORDER.  You now have a delivery date. Call your post office and give them the information and your phone number. They will call you as soon as your chicks arrive.

WHILE YOU’RE WAITING: Assemble the things you will need to house your new arrivals. If you don’t have any of these items on hand or cannot borrow, purchase:

a large plastic tub with sides high enough that chicks cannot jump out,  (for extra security a sheet of screen over the top will also help keep the chicks secure), a bag of cedar shavings, a heat lamp with a secure fastener, waterer, organic chicken crumbles.

Set up your chick’s housing in the location you have chosen. A warm kitchen, an out of the way mud room, or even the garage will be suitable. Place about three inches of cedar shavings in the bottom of the tub, securely fasten the heat lamp about 20 inches above the floor of the chick’s enclosure, put fresh cool water in the waterer, and offer plenty of crumbles.

THE CHICKS HAVE ARRIVED: The chicks will arrive in a ventilated cardboard box. Pick them up promptly from the post office and settle them into their new home.     incubator

Pick each chick up individually and place them in their warm , draft free environment. Dip each chick’s
beak quickly in the water to induce drinking. This will also help “freshen” any chick that may have
arrived in an overstressed condition. Keep the food bowl filled as chicks eat constantly, and clean, as
chicks do not discriminate between the toilet area and feeding area. Pay attention to the comfort of the newly acquired chicks. Use the huddle indicator: If they huddle together, your lamp is too far from the chicks; if the chicks huddle in the corners, away from the heat source, the lamp is too close.


baby chicksMaintain a bed of clean, dry shavings daily as it will become soiled from spilled water, food and excrement. The chicks will grow quickly and may need to be moved to a larger indoor container, such as a large dog crate. Use your judgement. By this time, you will feel accustomed to taking care of your chicks and will know when they are over crowed and need larger housing.

MOVING DAY: By about six weeks of age the chicks will have most of their feathers and if the outside temperature is warm, they can be moved to their outdoor location.

chickensMuch care needs to be taken as to the safety of your flock. Opportunistic predators such as snakes, hawks, owls, and foxes love captive prey. Even chicks that will eventually free range will need a place for safe keeping at night time.

OUTDOOR HABITAT:  For a small flock of confined hens or a free range flock that need a safe keeping place,a suitable arrangement can be made from the following items:

an 10 x 10 outdoor dog kennel, or larger; an outdoor dog house, plastic netting for a cover, fresh hay for filling house and box, egg laying box, perching area, organic egg layer pellets and water bowl.

Dig an area 10 x 10 in diameter and drop your kennel into the earth. This aids in keeping the digging predators, like foxes from gaining entrance and eating your hens. Cover the enclosure with netting to keep out the flying predators. After four months of age, the hens will have grown too large for snakes to consume, so they become less of a problem.

The egg laying boxes, feed bowls, and waterer, the perching area below. chicken house

The housing is made from a dog box and plastic cover.

Congratulations! You have successfully raised chicks to egg laying hens. You will make mistakes and learn more as you move along in your chicken adventure. Some additional facts:

—Chickens will eat much more than crumbles and pellets. Offer them seeds, produce and vegetable leftovers, both cooked and uncooked. Free range hens will also consume baby birds, mice and toads. Chickens have individual food preferences.

—Once your free range chickens are accustomed to their new outdoor accommodations, free them in the morning and near dusk they will (they should) return to the enclosure to be locked in for safe keeping at night.

—A rooster is not necessary for egg layer success.

—The chickens will eventually see you as their food source and will run to you upon calling them.

—As was said earlier, snakes are not a problem once your chicks are too large to be consumed, but at some point you may be startled to find one in your hen enclosure:

snake eats eggKeep in mind snakes are an important part of the ecosystem. You can spare an egg or two!

FISH HAWK IN THE SKY: A Tale of Two Ospreys

Now that spring is showing  us some signs that it just might stay awhile, have you ever wondered how birds know – sometimes before we do – that the weather is warming up and it’s okay to hang around? My writer, scrapbooking, and nature loving friend Shiela Fuller is back with a very interesting post about Ospreys that sheds some light on that question.
Each year since May 2012, wildlife biologists have been studying the migratory track of two adult ospreys from the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge in Queens, New York to their wintering site in South America. Queens is the easternmost of five New York City boroughs and the second most populated. The main goal of the project was to gain public awareness of the refuge and cultivate interest in the inhabitants that live there.

The first osprey outfitted with a transmitter was Coley. During the summer of 2012 his movements were monitored 12 hours a day. He began his winter migration and headed south on September 10th, 2012. Seventeen days and 2600 miles later, Coley arrived at his winter home, Columbia, South America.
On May 5, 2013, Coley began his round trip back to Queens, NY and he arrived in 15 days and 7 hours.

Later in the month, Coley’s transmitter was removed and placed on another male osprey, Coley 2. Scientists would now track the movements of this bird. During the summer, Coley 2 spent a lot of time perched with his mate after nest failure. Staying close to the nest assured the pair that it would still be their home the following spring.      IMG_9450
Weather can affect migration and when Coley 2 left New York on September 2, 2013, he was headed into some pretty serious thunderstorms. He only traveled 44 miles and settled in Trenton, New Jersey for the first night of his trip. Coley 2 continued onward and made remarkable time considering his damp start. He arrived at his winter home, Lake Valencia in Venezuela, South America on September 17, 2013.
While at Lake Valencia, Coley 2 will spend his time fishing, eating, and resting until his internal signal tells him it is time to return to the nesting area.

What inspires birds to migrate north or south and how do they find their way? There are only scientific speculations but some say it is hormonal changes and/or the changes in the length of day/night hours that motivate migration. Navigation is a bit trickier to understand but some say birds rely on the position of the sun, those that travel at night rely on the North Star, and some scientists say that birds use landmarks to help them find their way just as humans do. That doesn’t explain a bird’s first migration. How would they know the landmarks if they never traveled before?

Scientists had been monitoring Coley 2 at Lake Valencia and were happy to note that he must know the weather is bad in the northeastern US and stayed a little longer at his warm winter home but on Sunday, March 16, 2014, just a few days ago, Coley 2 left and was traveling at a remarkable 250 miles per day.       IMG_9705
Scientists are not monitoring Coley 1, but he and his female partner were spotted on their platform nest in Jamaica Bay on March 23, 2014. Will Coley 2 be far behind? Will his female partner arrive before he does? Follow Coley 2 on his magnificent journey and you can even predict when he might arrive at his summer home:  http://www.jamaicabayosprey.org.

For more details about the National Parks of New York Harbor Conservancy osprey project and to predict when Coley 2 will arrive go to: http://www.jamaicabayosprey.com http://www.nyharborparks.org

Footnotes: Another fabulous place to visit is the Cape May Bird Observatory. Their website for information is:  http://www.njaudobon.org



Winter Birding: There’s Still Lots of Time

According to the latest statistics, an estimated 85 million of us enjoy observing, photographing and feeding wild birds throughout the year. But, with still a few weeks of winter left, you can up your bird citizenship by participating in the GREAT ANNUAL BACKYARD BIRD COUNT. This activity takes place this year from Feb 14-17.  All you need to do is visit  http://www.eBird.org   

This website of the National Audubon Society and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology has made field work so easy with its BirdsEye tracking app. People from all over the world can submit data on bird sightings and find out about migration patterns as well. The bird count project at Cornell runs from November 9 through April 4, so there is plenty of time to get involved.  Visit: http://www.cams.allaboutbirds.org

You can also share your photos or enter contests like the one at:  http://www.hbwcontest.com

Here is a photo of a downy woodpecker that often visits our oak tree.

woodpeckerFinally, do you know why flocks of birds arrange themselves into perfect V’s instead of S or M or O, or any other letter?   Just recently scientists have found that birds position themselves like this, and time their wing beats so precisely that, according to aerodynamic theory, they minimize energy use. Each bird can monitor subtle changes in its wing mates flight and adjust its own path and stroke accordingly.  So if you thought birds were “bird-brained” guess again!  They are reacting in very sophisticated ways to maintain V formation. Our feathered friends are pretty amazing!

Listen to…Birdsongs.

For many people, birds create some of nature’s loveliest music. Between the songs, whistles, tweeting and chattering, it can be a symphony of sounds not only in spring and fall, but throughout the year. If you want to attract more birds into your yard, here are some tips for doing that.

Birds need a variety of plants and food sources. If your yard has grasses, shrubs, and trees, you’re off to a good start. A simple bird feeder will attract seed eating birds. Try adding nesting boxes for bluebirds, wrens and chickadees.  Provide seed-bearing plants such as sunflowers or cone flowers to attract sparrows and finches. Insect harboring shrubs and moving water will attract warblersMockingbirds and cat bids love fruiting shrubs, dense cover and unraked leaves.  The more variety you provide, the more species of birds you’ll attract.

For more ideas on bringing birds – and their songs – into your yard, check out this book: ATTRACTING SONGBIRDS TO YOUR BACKYARD:HUNDREDS OF EASY WAYS TO BRING MUSIC AND BEAUTY OF SONGBIRDS TO YOUR YARD by Sally Roth.  You can find it at:OrganicGardening.com

Once you have birds coming to visit, it is fun to keep a log of all the different ones you see. Children can draw pictures of them, try to capture them on camera and maybe even record some of their songs. I’d LOVE to hear how you do and what kind of birds come to visit your house.

Happy birding!