Give thanks for wildlife in the WNC mountains

Barbara Hootman Columnist

More and more birds visit feeders now that the year approaches winter. It is less than a month by man’s calendar until winter officially arrives, reminding us that Mother Nature is not always a gentle mistress, but one of many moods.

Regardless of whether the temperature is unseasonably warm or cold, change is the norm daily. Dawn and dusk are times of slanting light when both sunrise and sunset are in the distant south. Winter light sweeps into south-facing windows by midday. If there is a faint greenish light, be grateful for plenty of firewood or a full tank of oil. Winter’s nip will soon follow the icy band.

Twilight comes early now with the sun arching across the sky from southeast to southwest. It rises late and sets early. Across the western sky there may be bands of dusky purple and blue with a cold evening green blend. They darken and are gone quickly as you watch.

Late fall fruit is as important to furred wild critters as it is to birds. Apples, blackberries and cherries, when available, are part of their diets. They rely heavily on nuts in the fall. They also eat a variety of seeds and grains. Most enjoy black oiled sunflower seeds. Watch your bird feeders in late afternoon.

This is the time of the year that skunks burrow under sheds and out buildings, into crawl spaces, under porches and woodpiles. Skunk families disperse in the late fall. They eat their share of insects and larvae. They don’t hibernate, but do sleep for a couple of weeks at a time during the coldest weather. They enjoy whatever berries are available, and corn is a treat. Pick up outside pet dishes. A skunk will not pass up a nibble of kibble.

Winter squirrel nests are different from spring ones. Fall and winter nests are waterproof and are lined with bark, lichen, moss, fur and leaves. Usually two or three squirrels share the same cold weather nests.

Most gray squirrels bury some 10,000 nuts each fall to prevent winter starvation. They can’t remember where all of them are, but their sense of smell is so sensitive, they can find them. As the weather turns colder, they don’t usually venture out until mid-day. First litters of babies arrive in January during some of the coldest weather of the year.

Carolina Wrens are charismatic, hyperactive birds. They add musical calls throughout fall and winter. They have inquisitive natures and are bold singers. Gardeners welcome wrens for their hearty insectivorous appetites, but in fall and winter, insects become scarce and the wrens investigate bird feeders. They enjoy meal worms, peanut and sunflower hearts and suet. Smear some peanut butter on the bark of a tree and watch the wrens.

Water sources need to be shallow for the short-legged wren visitors. They investigate areas around homes, including garages, sheds and storage areas. They find nooks and crannies and explore them. If large enough, they will use some of them for winter shelter.

You can help Carolina Wrens survive cold winter temperatures by providing roosting shelters for them. A one-gallon bucket or a flower pot lined with dried grasses and hung on a nail makes a cozy winter roost for at least two wrens and more if everyone is agreeable. Make sure it is protected above, making it weatherproof. Often two wrens will use the same night roost, which allows them to share their body heat. Make sure the interior of the roost can’t get wet, or all you’ll have is soggy wet grass. And wrens won’t use it.

Having a safe, warm winter roost can increase an area’s wren population, because when winter is long and cold, the species can suffer large losses. Carolina Wrens, usually seen in pairs, stay on their territory all year, which is not true of house wrens, who move south in the winter. Carolina Wrens enjoy late fall berries and will feed on them throughout the winter. They will eat suet, peanut and sunflower hearts when offered at feeding stations. They repay all human efforts with their strong, loud, cheery voices.

Pine Siskins have arrived in some areas of the Valley.

Voles and field mice feed on grass and seeds. Voles are particularly fond of tulip bulbs. Due to the unusually warm weather, chipmunks still have not hibernated.

Great Horned Owls are calling throughout the night. They are announcing territories for hunting and future nesting areas.

Starlings have begun to congregate in large roosting groups.

Bears are not in their dens, so continue to take the bird feeders inside at night. Raccoons raid a lot of platform feeders at night for sunflower seeds.

Remember to be grateful for living in a beautiful place with an abundance of wildlife.

Happy Thanksgiving.

May you always hear the whisper of wings.