Well, here we are again, everyone. As we depart the Mini-Me Polar Vortex and enter the positive side of zero, we take little comfort, for we have learned from our local meteorologists that sub-zero temperatures and snow will be with us daily at least through February.
It is time to cease questioning our fate … time to stop wracking our brains for possible sacrifices to the gods, time to stop obsessively reading the 5-day forecasts, hoping to see just one sun symbol pinned to the to the Weekly Weather Report of Damnation.
We are at a weather crossroads here in Chicago, To avoid losing our edge, our tourism dollars — or worse, ending up like a bunch of Jack Torrances, we must get a grip. Right now.
May I suggest a new approach to our take on the Winter of 2014? Not the loser mid-winter trip to Florida or any island in the Caribbean or Cancun or Ixtapa or … sorry, I got distracted there for a moment … I submit that we must wax philosophical and take our cues from our forest brethren. There is truly nothing left to for us to do.
Animals have got it going on. Their survival depends on it. Now, as someone who lives in a community just north of Chicago, I can honestly claim to have observed a surprising array of forest animals right outside my house. With the exception of cougars and Big Foot, I can attest to the presence of an active population of hardy creatures who make us hairless bipeds the epitome of wimp-dom.
First, allow me to describe sightings during the more temperate seasons of the year, to demonstrate the typical foraging and survival activities of the neighborhood furry fellows. As you read, try to imagine dragging yourself down out of your tree nest or your subterranean hole or your deep forest thicket at 4am to go in search for food for the next 15 hours, crawling back home at sundown, sleeping for a few hours, only to start the whole routine all over again. Of course, there may be some mating and prey-fleeing here and there, but seriously: this is your daily existence.
In my neighborhood one can regularly see squirrels, chipmunks, rabbits, and a wide variety of birds. In warmer months, at night, the bats fly in their erratic, darting and swooping patterns while the cicadas thunder in the shrubbery as the temperature drops. Last summer we had our first-ever visits from humming birds, who made daily stops at feeders in our back yard , and who left quite abruptly on Friday, August 20. Seriously.
More unusual sightings I have made include foxes, one of which was more like an orange blur moving past the bedroom window early one morning, and the second of which, sadly, was of an ill fox, hobbling in a daze right down the middle of the street. This second sighting prompted a call to Animal Control, though the poor thing was gone by the time office answered.
On two occasions I have witnessed a buck trotting down the sidewalk across the street early in the morning on my way to school. I swear, though I can’t prove it — but both times the he had a long-strap briefcase slung around his neck.
The hub of forest creature activity is in our back yard. The beacon is the bird feeder. This food source attracts not only birds, but many other furry community neighbors.
I had always thought of bird feeder activity as a rather harmonious aviary event. During my initial, naïve observations of the bird-only feeding behavior, I’d watch with my head cocked, my fingers laced together beneath my chin, sighing in a clueless, though possibly somewhat cute manner, as they fitfully pecked at the seeds, flinging about 50% of the supply to the ground. Upon closer scrutiny, it was apparent that a daily battle was actually being waged to stay on a rung — any rung, of the feeder to access the food supply. Those little finches and chickadees are vicious! They dive-bomb each other, peck each other in mid-air, and lunge at each other in ground searches for seeds. They assume defensive stances on the rungs by spreading their wings in between pecks at the feeder opening.
Enter other forest animals, who also draw from this trough. They include squirrels, chipmunks, black birds, cardinals, rabbits, and the occasional possum and prey-seeking hawk. I mean to say that all of these animals converge at or under the bird feeder as if they’ve agreed to have a dinner date. It’s like Lion Country Safari out there.
The most consistent grouping includes finches, cardinals, mourning doves, squirrels, chipmunks, and rabbits. All at once. Typically, if everyone sticks to his or her own 2 square-inch territory, all is well. Move outside your own radius, and you are a pouncee. Chipmunks have a surprising supply of moxie, often darting at squirrels, who retreat or shoot straight into the air, only to return within seconds to the feeding area. Finches go after each other. Mourning doves quietly waddle from spot to spot, leaving everyone alone. Cardinals move back and forth between the ground and the bushes, calling to each other. It is lovely to watch the male feed the female during these forays. The rabbits press their snouts close to the ground, advancing in small steps as they sniff out the seeds.
On two occasions during the summer, a hawk landed on the ground, right under the feeder, too late for a meal of birds. Each time, the bird was gone as quickly as it came. Previous sightings included their perching high in trees at the nearby park district golf course, flying along the tree lines near our house, and sometimes perching on the cable wires that stretch across the street (yes … in my neighborhood we have cable wires that stretch across the street … and across our back yard as well).
So that’s the temperate weather forest creature behavior.
But remember, we are in the dead of winter, the Mini-Me Polar Vortex of 2014. And yet, many of these creatures manage to stick around. In my little neck of the woods, the bird feeder is the food source, and these animals have what it takes to make it through the harsh winter months.
The bird feeder remains the hub, the fount of alimentation to all animals who can hop or fly or waddle to this magic spot. The survivors include finches, cardinals, squirrels, rabbits — and: the sub-deck-dwelling possum. (We’ll deal with him in just a moment.)
First, envision 8 – 10 inches of wind-swept snow in a rather narrow strip of back yard . All the afore-mentioned animals navigate it continuously. The finches, cardinals, squirrels, and rabbits are at the hub anytime between 4:30am and about 5:00pm currently. With each new snowfall, these animals traverse the puffy flakes, leaving tracks as evidence of their travels, or the icy-hard patches that form as the temperatures sink. Changes in the terrain don’t stop them any more than the biting air. They just keep on showing up. They are the Survivors.
Now, the new-comer to this winter animal scene, though, are the possum. Typically nocturnal creatures, they are known to venture out during day-light hours to forage for food (my readers may recall a previous post in which I described a pair that feasted on human beach-goers’ snacks at Cape Florida several years ago). I have watched them waddle through the parking lot many times upon leaving the building of my school after teaching a night class (me, not the possum).
I believe a dynasty of possum live beneath the deck behind our house, despite our attempts over the years to suggest that other venues would be more suitable to their needs. My cat’s nightly perch at the sliding glass door confirms their pending emergence from the underground bunker … and their tracks in the snow that I spot each morning are proof. Recently I have watched them move across the snow, with steady determination, loping along the side of the house, and across to the spot directly beneath the bird feeder, to lap up what fallen seeds are available. They remain for just a moment, then turn to lumber their way through the bushes into the next door neighbors’ back yard. As I press my nose against the sliding glass door, fogging it up so much that I have to wipe the moisture with a napkin, I envision them returning in the wee hours of the morning, while I am fast asleep, snickering and snorting as they squeeze their slimy paunches between the slats and the side of the house, stretching out on their backs, crossing their hind paws, stretching their front paw behind their heads, their scaly little tales curling around their guts as they pick their snaggle-teeth with a used tooth pick foraged from a neighbor’s garbage bin.
OK, so maybe I don’t have an appreciation for possums. But I do have respect for their staying power, and their keen determination to survive the elements. I gotta hand it to them.
And that’s my point. These creatures are out there every day, doing what they need to do to survive. They’re dragging themselves up every morning, grinding it out all day long, and then flopping into their nests at night. And they’re not complaining. So why should we? It doesn’t really become us, after all.
Are we not CHICAGO????
So, let’s take a deep cleansing breath, accept the Mini-Me Polar Vortex, and move on. Let’s think of the Winter of 2014 as a journey, not a destination.
And to bring this discussion to its appropriate close, I’d like you to make a list of the 5 things for which you are thankful. I’ll help you get started with numbers 1 and 2:
1. I am thankful I live in Chicago, the Coolest City in the Continental United States.
2. I am thankful I’m not a possum.
Continue, please …