The ebb and flow of life on the Iron Range of northern Minnesota continues. The constant and increasing parade of flying gulls, herring, ring-billed and others between the Virginia landfill and Bailey’s and Silver lakes is on again this autumn.
Part of migration, part of seasonal change, the onset of cooler weather causes the flying animals to choose between continuing to live here up north and engage in a breeding and child-rearing summer or following the age-old feeling that the warm breezes of summer are not going to last and we had better get out while we can.
The noble swans have arrived back on our lakes, and the geese, who have come to us again pecking and eating at our lawns, and pooping on our sidewalks and driveways, reminding us that they are both handsome birds capable of flight for long distances and citywide nuisances periodically. Does their honking while flying help them navigate, change the lead position in their flight wedges, or is it just blatting honking?
The most colorful little songbirds are also migrating. They will lose more than two billion of their numbers attempting to fly over the Caribbean Sea between North and South America in their migrations. Why don’t they just stay in Florida, Alabama, Louisiana and Texas, instead of trying to cross a sea so wide they cannot possibly see across it? Don’t they know better? While many fail to cross, many succeed to spend the winter months in South America.
Arctic terns fly more than 7,000 miles, mostly over water, from the high arctic down to the farthest south America in autumn, and the reverse direction in the spring. And they are not the only ones who fly such prodigious distances each seasonal change. Many other kinds of birds fly from the far north to the far south of the globe we live on, and back the other way in spring.
Why don’t they fly over land and go over Mexico and Central America and into South America for the winter. A friend of mine said, “It don’t work that way.” I want to correct him and say, “doesn’t,” but I don’t. I let the truth of his statement include and override his minor syntactic error.
Many of the littlest and most colorful songbirds live one or maybe two years only. They don’t get to mate with the same cute mate the second year, because they don’t live that long. For them, mating and raising a brood of one or two in summer is what saves their species from disappearing. For the species to survive, they must mate and raise their young in one summer.
The trees and grasses and other plants, whose respiration gives us more oxygen, stop photosynthesis when their leaves fall to earth to become more earth. How are we to have enough oxygen if the leaves fall and quit respiring? Do not despair, boys and girls, for all the leaves do not fall. There is actually lots of spare oxygen in the atmosphere for us to breathe.
Trees whose leaves have fallen still have bodies of mostly carbon, repositories of the remnants of carbon dioxide, after giving off oxygen to the atmosphere and keeping the carbon, carbon sinks for the earth and the atmosphere.
The muskrats, moles, voles, shrews, and mink, martens, otters, weasels, squirrels and chipmunks, all of those highly evolved little creatures who cannot fly must stay and find places to sleep and survive the long, cold days and nights of winter. One of my favorite pictures is of three muskrats sleeping in a far corner of a beaver house, while the beavers on the other side sleep quietly together. Can you see the value of getting along with others not like you?
The rabbits sleep underground, but the long-legged and athletically and aesthetically beautiful deer must sleep on the ground, right on top of the snow. If you go out in the woods in the winter, you may come across places where deer have slept on the snow, melting some of the snow and leaving an oval impression in the snow. Somehow, most of them survive.
Bears sometimes sleep in dens that are not quite dens, just a hollow place in the ground. Another of my favorite pictures is of three bears sleeping cheek by jowl in a hollowed out spot in the earth, with their backs exposed to the cold. When the snows come, it covers them up. In the middle of winter when the air is 40 degrees below zero, under the snow the bears sleep in 5 – 15 degrees Fahrenheit. In March of next spring, momma bear even gives birth to two or three little ones sandwiched in between two other bears.
The little animals, some named above, sleep in burrows they dug themselves and sometimes share with other little creatures, somnambulantly sharing a hole in the ground with someone else they hardly know. Some of them waken from time to time and tunnel beneath the snow in the same 5 – 15 degrees above zero, insulated temps that allow the bears to survive covered by insulating snow. The little buggers scratch around the ground and bite off some of the grasses that lived last summer, and bring bunches of it back to their tunnel burrow to share with the family and the other guests.
Owls, like other winter birds, fluff out their feathers to hold in a small amount of warmth, sit on branches and listen for the movements of the little shrews and others moving along the tunnels under the snow. Their hearing is so acute, they can hear a mouse moving along in an under-snow tunnel, scraping up a few grasses and flower stems and dandelion leaves to feed the family. Owls, whose feathers are soft enough to fly without making a sound, dash and glide silently through the frigid air, and crash through the snow and grab a little mouse with a mouth full of grasses, and feed on him on a tree branch.
How does a smallest bird, like the chickadee, manage to stay through the bleak midwinter when all the woods are frozen? Like the squirrels and chipmunks, they cache away some seeds in summer and fall, hidden under patches of tree bark for winter provisions. Even birds who remain in Minnesota in winter, who feed at bird feeders behind our houses, on seeds and suet, bits of fat we get from a grocery store that give them energy, still get over half their food out in the forest, the natural way.
Soon migration will be in full swing. This is a good time to go out and watch for birds flying around, doing what they are doing, some preparing to migrate and some preparing to stay.
Do you think it is amazing that the stately swans and loons can fly up north, lay a couple of eggs in a nest only inches above the water level in the reeds along a lake or pothole, feed and raise the young that have just popped out of those eggs, train them to feed themselves, to know what to look for to eat and what to avoid, to avoid predators and those who would do them some harm, and to grow large enough and strong enough to fly south for the winter?
I find that whole story of the life and survival of all the kinds of creatures just plain amazing. I hope you do too.
Rand Sturdy lives in Virginia. He is a frequent contributor to Hometown Focus.