Posts Tagged ‘winter survival’


I haven’t seen many flocks of Wild Turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo) this winter, but at the end of last week, I noticed a large flock in a field when I was out driving. There were quite a number of birds, perhaps a hundred or so, spread out in groups across the far side of the field. I stopped and took a couple of photographs.


The turkeys were far enough away that they didn’t pay too much attention to me. Turkeys are cautious birds, and don’t generally allow curious spectators to approach them. They have good cause to be nervous. Prior to European settlement, turkeys were common in the mixed and temperate forests of southern Ontario. Habitat loss and hunting resulted in such population declines that the species was extirpated from Ontario by 1909. A reintroduction program, begun in 1984 has been amazingly successful, and there is now a spring and fall hunting season for turkeys here. Having grown up in a turkeyless Ontario, it still surprises me to see the big birds. It surprises me and gives me a moment of pleasure to spot them.


It’s been a difficult winter for turkeys. Deep snow interferes with the ability of turkeys to forage on the ground. The snow in my yard is over a foot deep. According to information in the Atlas of the Breeding Birds of Ontario 2000-2005, localized starvation may occur when snow depth exceeds 25 cm for more than seven consecutive weeks. However, we had milder temperatures on the weekend, and on Monday, it was above freezing, so the snow is melting back a bit.

It seems odd, somehow, to think of these large, strutting birds sitting in trees, but that’s how they spend their nights. Recently, my friend Tony noticed a flock of roosting turkeys and took the photograph below, which he kindly shared with me. We’re halfway through February, so hopefully the snow will be disappearing before too long. Good luck, you turkeys!


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Little Red appreciates the new Blue Jay feeder too. Every afternoon, once the main crush of Blue Jays has moved on, this little red squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) arrives to enjoy his share of the treats. He can reach the feeder very conveniently by dropping from a nearby branch and scrambles back home the same way. In the photo above, he (she?) is keeping a wary eye on me as I stand at my kitchen window.

We don’t have the larger grey squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis) that were more than abundant at our former Toronto-area home here, and I don’t miss them one bit. Little Red is a cute little guy though, and it is nice to see him. These smaller squirrels don’t seem to gather together in large numbers in the manner of their outsized kin. Red squirrels prefer coniferous forests, with their abundant supply of cones, but are adaptable and widespread.


It’s common to hear a red squirrel expressing his annoyance at an intruder with angry chattering. They’re feisty individuals, and will chase away much larger interlopers, but I’ve noticed Little Red avoids the Blue Jay hoards. While grey squirrels stick to nuts and seeds, red squirrels have a more varied diet, and enjoy a range of food items that includes insects, bird eggs and even young rabbits and frogs, and fruits and mushrooms. Probably other small creatures don’t find Little Red as cute as I do! In the fall, red squirrels cache food to help them make it through the winter. In conifer forests, you may find piles of cones assembled by a red squirrel. I found this cache, in the photo above, in a forest with many Scotch pine (Pinus sylvestris). Red squirrels don’t hibernate, but during severe weather, they may go into a state of torpor for an extended period.


During breeding season, red squirrels build large, grassy nests formed into round balls in the branches of trees. In winter, however, a more secure home is need, and a cavity in a tree offers a snug, dry spot to spend the night. When moving firewood we had purchased recently, I came across a split log with stuffing hanging out. I carefully removed the stuffing and found a cavity of about 3 inches in depth behind the opening. It probably served as the winter home of a red squirrel. The stuffing was soft and clean and grassy. It looked like a comfortable winter hideout. Hopefully, the squirrel had moved on to a summer nest before the tree was cut down for firewood.


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It had been a while since I had driven down the road that passes beside a large marsh west of here. In the summer, it is dense with cattails. It’s hard to see past the line of cattails lining the road. But now, the weight of the snow and the breaking down of the cattails has revealed…Muskratville!

The snow piled on domed roofs catches the eye and dozens of muskrat abodes have suddenly (it seems) been made visible. Muskrats (Ondatra zibethicus) build a couple of kinds of structures, lodges and pushups. Pushups are smaller than lodges and serve as resting places where muskrats can eat in safety.

Muskrats forage underwater for roots and underground stems of plants such as pondweed, water milfoil, and burr-reed. Using a line of pushups stretching away from its lodge, a muskrat can gather food farther away form its lodge than it could otherwise reach. As well as providing a feeding station, pushups also provide an insulated shelter out of the icy water that can quickly rob heat from the muskrat’s naked tail and feet.

Pushups are created in autumn, when the pond first freezes over. The muskrat chews a hole through the thin ice, often around an air bubble or a spot where marsh gas is escaping. Then the muskrat pushes up a pile of fine roots, submerged vegetation, and other debris to form a dome. As the pile grows, it forms an enclosed cavity on the ice surface.

The muskrat visits the pushup throughout the winter to keep the ice open. Pushups are generally constructed in straight lines, about 12 yards apart, in line with a favoured feeding ground. I’m not sure which of these structures might be lodges, and which might be pushups, but the many structures certainly suggest an active community.

For more on muskrats, see my November 17th post, Busy as a Beaver. You can also learn more at The Marvelous in Nature at Muskrat in our Meadow, and see another muskrat push-up at Back on the Blades.

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