December has the voice of the hungry owl, coyote and fox

Barbara Hootman Columnist

December marks a year aged with wisdom. The month is a time of summation not only for the year, but for all the years that have ended. Now the quiet time of the year surrounds man in nature.

Mother Nature has already teased the Valley by breathing some of the coldest temperatures since last March. Then she settles into a warmer-than-usual reprieve. December winds sweep over the mountains and down into Valley, meeting little resistance from leafless trees. Such winds carry cold freight as they rush through the Valley, scattering fallen leaves like waves washed against fences and walls.

In the December dusk, the wind has the voice of the hungry owl, coyote and fox. It snarls, whines and howls, twisting itself through the ancient pines that provide the green splotches throughout the gray winter mountains. No wonder bears begin to seek their dens and wood chucks hibernate deep in their burrows. Deer huddle in the pine and hemlock thickets, bracing against Mother Nature’s winter breath.

Now man longs for the slower-paced long days of summer that are only distant memories. Daylight is the currency demanded by nature to pay for those memories. The balance will be paid in full by March 21, with the arrival of the spring equinox that announces another new season. Whether rain washes the earth or snow blankets it, the cycle will begin again.

Some buds on shrubs are so small that they seem to be tiny percussion caps. But spring will emerge from them. The trees are dusted with buds that unfold in spring. Even though we are prone to say Mother Nature rests in winter, in reality she is working like a mad hatter. She has just shuts the shutters and closes the drapes. But behind them, she is busy unpacking the goods for a new growth season. What is not done now below the surface and in the buds won’t be done in April.

A friend is in the throes of trying to defeat the squirrels from raiding her bird feeder. She greased the pole with axle grease, only to find long squirrel tail hair on the pole and the seeds scattered on the deck floor. A baffle is going up as a next step in the battle. The indoor cat is having a feline bash sitting by the hour crouched and quivering with anticipation, and occasionally forgets and bangs his head on the window as he pounces at chipmunks. His prowess as a great hunter is honed as he waits for the prey only a nose away behind glass. The birds and squirrels are better feline entertainment than anything on the market. Defeating a squirrel is never the end result.

The gray squirrel is the closest contact most people have with mammalian life. Squirrels have adapted to living in close contact with humans. They thrive in urban areas, suburb lawns and parks, and in our backyard. People enjoy watching their antics and trying to outwit them. Good luck. Others have given up and settle for watching and feeding them in hopes they will leave the bird feeders alone. They demonstrate a considerable amount of intelligence for such a small animal. Couple intelligence with finely tuned instincts, and you have a formidable foe.

Yellow bellied sapsuckers (woodpeckers) are a boost to cold days in the mountains. They along with the Juncos are true winter birds in WNC. They head back north to nest in the spring or migrate up to higher elevations. They consider the mountains (and farther south) as their winter digs. They have been back in WNC since late October and are the most migratory of the woodpecker species.

Their breasts have a zest of yellow, and their heads and throats are accessorized with red. Only the males have the hint of yellow on them. Sapsuckers will tap more than 250 species of trees for sap. They drill rows of sap wells in trees, sipping the sap and eating the insects it attracts. In the spring when the sap starts back up, hummingbirds will find the wells and drink from them, and many butterflies will do the same. Several woodpecker types sip from the sapsucker wells. The sapsuckers add berries from dogwood, holly, red cedar, black gum, Virginia Creeper and bittersweet to their late fall and winter diet.

The wells drilled in the fall and winter are rectangle and arranged in vertical rows. Those drilled in the spring are round. The sapsucker has a shorter tongue than other woodpeckers; their tongues are made like a brush to help them lap sap.

Keep out plenty of fresh water for drinking and bathing.

May you always hear the whisper of wings.