Northland Nature...Cottontail rabbits in the yardA local resident has been arriving at the feeder in recent weeks consistently – the cottontail rabbit.
By: Larry Weber, Pine Journal
These winter days are made more enjoyable and lively with the addition of a bird feeder near the house. The birds that come by for a meal can get along quite well without us, but I find that when I invite them in for a time, it enhances my view of the season.
Most of the birds that appear here each day are non-migratory and, no doubt, have been in the region for months or even years. The chickadees, nuthatches and woodpeckers may be seen back in the woods during other times of the year, but find this available free food too good to pass up.
Others, such as the redpolls that are so abundant at my feeders now, are residents of the far north and are wintering here. In this strange land, a long way from home, they gladly take the thistle and sunflower seeds that I put out. But many times I have seen their flocks finding meals in the plants of the roadsides and fields, not at feeders.
Other birds remain with us through the cold season and usually do not visit feeders. Ravens and crows use their intelligence to find meals nearly anywhere. Grouse and turkeys, along with Bohemian waxwings and crossbills, find berries and seeds at other locations.
Nevertheless, watching the bird feeders every day adds much to the cold and snow season. We call these structures bird feeders, but I find that they get the attention of several kinds of critters that are not birds.
Each morning, the local gray squirrels, in a gray or black phase, will appear for breakfast. They are few in number on cold or snowy days; but on mild days, maybe a dozen or more arrive. (I never see that many in the yard in summer.) Usually their smaller cousin from the conifers, red squirrels, will join them.
Throughout the daylight hours, the crowd changes, but almost never are the feeders completely empty. And it continues after dark.
At dusk, I go out and replenish a platform with sunflower seeds so that the nocturnal squirrels –the flying squirrels – will have food. (Any seeds put out earlier are likely to be taken by the grays.) Under the cover of darkness, the tiny flyers gather in energetic groups of 10 or more. Gregariously, they devour their meals and then scatter into the night.
With all of this bird and mammal feeding, lots of seeds fall to the ground. And though much is gathered during the day, some is taken during the darkness. Deer and mice have found these seeds and frequently come by. But another local resident has been arriving in recent weeks consistently – the cottontail rabbit.
The Northland is home to two species of this type, the cottontail rabbit and its cousin, the showshoe hare. While the hare is found in the forests and changes to a white coat for the winter, the cottontail remains brown (with its namesake short white tail) and is found in more open woods, fields and yards during this time.
Usually the two cousins do not meet. The brown color may make cottontails stand out more in the snow, and so they are active during the nighttime hours; daylight is spent in hiding, often beneath bushes or shrubs. Even though they live in my yard, I almost never see them in the day. Were it not for the regular nocturnal visits to a lighted feeder, I would not notice them.
Apparently, the resident rabbits have learned that the light used to illuminate the feeding site is harmless. Usually a single one arrives at about two hours after dusk; occasionally I see two, and the hunger of one cold night even brought out three. Viewing these rabbits at the feeder is a good way to let me know that they are wintering here with us, but not the only way: so are their tracks.
Each day, these critters’ tracks are telltale signs of their active night. Besides the feeders, they visit trees and shrubs for meals of twigs and buds to cope with the cold. As winter progresses, their behavior will change and the abundant tracks will tell of the coming breeding season.
Thanks to their tracks and visits to the feeding site at this time, I can appreciate the presence of this elusive neighbor wintering with us.
Retired teacher Larry Weber of Carlton is the author of several books, including “Butterflies of the North Woods,” “Spiders of the North Woods” and “Webwood.” You may contact him at email@example.com.