Hubbard Fellowship Blog – Olivia and the Snowbirds

This blog – text and photos – are by Olivia Schouten, one of our Hubbard Fellows.  Olivia and her colleague Alex Brechbill will be wrapping up their year with us next week.  It’s been a fantastic year, and we will miss their thoughtful observations and good humor. 

Last month I got the chance to blabber about my love of November and autumn, but now I can talk about something I love about winter! We’ve actually had snow this year (I haven’t gotten much these last couple years living in Kansas), and while that’s not what I’m going to talk about, I do think the colder weather is what brought this particular piece of winter to my back patio.

I’m talking about snowbirds! Dark-eyed juncos and American tree sparrows to be exact. These little sparrows nest far to the north during the summer, and while they do come south for the winter, they stop just at the leading edge of the cold, sometimes not even reaching as far south as Kansas during warm winters. They can be found in mixed flocks pecking around on the ground, especially under bird feeders, for seeds throughout the colder months, twiting and seeting away.

One of the house sparrows I usually end up with feeding at my bird feeder, all fluffed up against the cold.

I mention these birds because they arrived on the Platte today (Dec. 4)! Or at least, that’s when I noticed them for the first time. I have a bird feeder set up just outside the kitchen windows, and I’ve been supplying the local birds with black oil sunflower seeds for a couple months now. The vast majority of visitors have been nonnative house sparrows, so imagine my delight when I noticed a little group of tree sparrows had stopped for a snack this morning! Shortly afterward, a small group of juncos joined them, and I knew immediately that winter had officially arrived.

An American tree sparrow searching the snow for seeds.  As a bird lover, it was very exciting to find them at the bird feeder this morning.
Dark-eyed juncos have a lot of personality, flittering around in large flocks and standing out against the snow.  White tail feathers flash every time they fly off.

While several species of birds certainly fly south for the winter, with all members of their species fleeing to Central or South America for warmer climes and plenty of food, you might be surprised at how many of our local birds actually stick it out. For example, robins can be found in most portions of their range year-round, and I’ve witnessed more than once a robin singing on especially warm winter days. Meadowlarks are another species that can actually be seen in much of their range for the entire year.

This meadowlark’s yellow breast stands out even more brightly against the snow than it does in the summer prairie.  That’s probably why it took me forever to get a photo where it was actually showing it off.  Four or five have been hanging out in the yard around our shop since November.

Now, it’s very likely that the robins and meadowlarks seen in the winter aren’t the exact same birds that nest in that location in the summer. These species do migrate to an extent, with their range shifting south during the winter months, leaving their northern reaches free of birds and inhabiting new areas in the south. However, theirs are not migrations of thousands of miles. Instead, birds only move a few hundred miles at most. The behavior of these birds also changes drastically during the winter months. They are much more reclusive, and since the males aren’t singing constantly, they certainly seem to disappear.

So while juncos and tree sparrows have a reputation as cold-enduring species, I think it’s worth giving our other local birds some recognition. They’re here during the winter as well, they’re just not as obvious about it.

Olivia and the Whistle-Pig

This post was written and illustrated by Olivia Schouten, one of our Hubbard Fellows.  Olivia is an excellent scientist and land manager, as well as a great writer.  In this post, she shares a recent experience with, and some interesting trivia about, a cute furry animal.

We had a visitor in the front yard the other day, which gave me a great opportunity to take some pictures of a mammal I don’t often get to see. This woodchuck (Marmota monax) has been spotted around our crew quarters here on the Platte River Prairies for a few weeks now, and appears to have taken up residence in our wood pile. I finally managed to spend some time watching it from the safety of the living room while it foraged in the yard for dandelion leaves.

I was so excited to see this woodchuck come so close, so I could see the details, from its little ears to the frosted tips of its fur. But while they may look cuddly, woodchucks are known for being pretty feisty and aggressive.

I haven’t had many experiences with woodchucks, also called groundhogs and whistle-pigs. (As an aside, I didn’t realize they were one in the same until I was in college. I have a friend Jessica, who’s probably reading this, who was there when I made the connection and exclaimed “Wait? You’re saying how much wood would a woodchuck chuck and Groundhog Day are the same thing?!”, and likes to bring it up whenever she can.) In fact, I’ve probably seen more yellow-bellied marmots (Marmota flaviventris), a close cousin to woodchucks, while travelling in the Rocky Mountains than our local woodchucks. I remember hearing a few whistling while walking in the woods around my hometown in Iowa, but other than that, this may be the first one I’ve ever seen, especially this close!

One of the yellow- bellied marmots I saw and photographed while in Colorado in August. They look superficially similar to woodchucks, but their ranges don’t overlap, so there’s little risk of mistaking one for the other.

Unfortunately, the other experience I have with these mammals, and one that I’m sure many readers also share, is of their digging habits. My parents recently had one removed from their backyard because it was busy burrowing under their garage. Apparently they are also pests in gardens, which doesn’t surprise me since I watched the one in our yard munching happily away on dandelions for several minutes. I’m inclined to find ways to cohabitate peacefully with native animals that sometimes cause problems or destruction to human structures, and a quick Google search turned up a lot of advice on how to discourage woodchucks from taking up residence around your home or eating your gardens. But I’m not going to talk any more about that (though like many perceived “pest” species, the destruction they cause is likely inflated), because I think this woodchuck is adorable, and I was inspired to look up more information about them!

So here’s an informal list of some fun facts I dug up:

  1. The name does not actually refer to woodchucks chucking wood, but comes from a Native American word, wuchak, which means “digger”
  2. Baby woodchucks are called chucklings!
  3. They are really big squirrels! (Family Sciuridae)
  4. Their incisors grow 1/16” per week
  5. They can climb trees and swim
  6. They enter true hibernate over winter, surviving on stored fat instead of making food caches
  7. Their dens often provide homes for other animals like small rodents, reptiles, skunks, red foxes, and cottontails
  8. Woodchuck burrows have “bathroom” chambers
  9. The origins of Groundhog Day began in 1886, when an editor of the Punxsutawney Spirit newspaper wrote that the local groundhogs hadn’t seen their shadows, and therefore spring would be early
  10. Their bodies drop to 37 degrees during hibernation!
  11. And their heartbeats slow to 5 beats per minute!
  12. They have a top speed of 8 mph
  13. They are for the most part solitary, with males only hanging out with females during the breeding season and females taking care of their young
  14. They can eat a pound of food per sitting (a lot for a creature that weighs at most 15 lbs)
I love the black paws and legs of this woodchuck. It looks like she’s wearing gloves!
I could have watched this adorable creature waddling around the yard eating dandelions all day.