Cold. Snow. Ice. Spring is still a month away. The easy-to-get food already may have been consumed. The sun’s rays – if they peek through the overcast – pack only marginal warmth.
That’s why some Native Americans called February the time of the “Hunger Moon.”
You have to empathize with wildlife’s struggles this time of year.
A hungry coyote – which normally might fill its stomach by catching rabbits or mice under the cover of darkness – ventures into the cold daylight to gnaw on bones of a six-week-old deer carcass left over from hunting season. Can there be enough dried scraps of meat, fat, or sinew to make the effort worthwhile? Perhaps – if you’re hungry enough!
After the coyote moves on, the crows return to continue pecking at the remnants – as they have for several days. The birds must find SOMETHING, or they wouldn’t keep returning. Or maybe they visit the bone pile out of habit, expecting a replenished banquet that never happens.
Is it that wishful thinking that brings the opossum to the deer remains on a warm afternoon? For no more nourishment than the animal gained, it probably would have been better off saving its energy and staying asleep in its winter den.
After an overnight snowstorm, the goldfinches and juncos flock to the feeder, scratching impatiently for fresh sunflower hearts, and seeming to plead, “Feed me!” to the slow-moving human benefactor.
But the birds themselves better not move too slowly, lest they become breakfast for the sharp-shinned hawk. The sharpie has learned that our bird feeders are its bird feeder, too. We hope the little raptor will settle for one of the abundant goldfinches, and not snatch our cute chickadees, titmice, or purple finches.
The bird feeder feeds more than birds, too. Many evenings, white-footed mice scramble up to the tray to nibble on scraps of sunflower seeds. But one night, another shape appeared at the feeder. Perhaps the screech owl had learned a good place to hunt for its favorite prey.
Even the larger critters have to work harder when snow and ice coat the land. Pheasants scour open fields for seeds – even though their forays make them more vulnerable to predators. Tough tom turkeys venture out onto a windswept hilltop, where the snow has been blown away and they can forage for waste grain or seeds.
Deer – at their peril – may hang out on roadsides, and even bed down there, where snowplows have scraped down to grass and forbs. The dry vegetation probably hasn’t retained much flavor or many nutrients – but it’s probably better than munching on prickly junipers.
I feel a twinge of guilt as I throw another log on the fire in the wood stove, and brew a cup of hot chocolate in the microwave. But then we browse the nursery catalogs, planning the annual spring ritual of tree and shrub planting. Maybe a few more dogwoods, wild plums, serviceberries, white pines, and bur oaks will give our critters a bit more habitat that will help them survive future winters.