Nature notes

By Lynn McKeown


Animals in winter


I’m sitting here watching the snow fall in what is turning out to be a rather severe winter. I’ve put out corn and bird seed for the squirrels and birds, and there are four or five fox squirrels around our burr oak in the back yard.

There will be birds coming to the feeder just behind our breezeway — cardinals, chickadees, starlings and the ever-present house sparrows. Yesterday I saw a white-throated sparrow, a straggler from the flocks we always have in our shrubbery during migrations seasons. Blue jays, goldfinches and an occasional white-breasted nuthatch have also appeared.

Today, as the snowflakes fall, there seem to be fewer birds in evidence, except for one mourning dove pecking at some birdseed we’ve thrown out on the driveway. When the snow falls, do the birds hunch over in protected spots to wait it out? (No, later in the day, with the snow falling, cardinals and sparrows were feeding voraciously in the driveway.) There’s only one squirrel now at the base of the oak tree. Maybe they are retreating somewhere to wait out the storm with their bushy tails over their heads.

In spite of the cold, our cat Kato is out in the unheated breezeway, ignoring my occasional calls to come into the warm kitchen. He likes to sit crouched by a crack under the door where he can apparently see or hear or smell the birds that sometimes fly into the carport.

Kato is a fairly new cat in our household. One of our cats died recently, but we’ve acquired a couple of new ones. We had Cookie for about 17 years, and it was sad when he died. He was a cute, little black-and-white cat, very small for a tom. He had a fascination with water. He would stare at water going down the drain in our basement floor, and would get very excited watching the bathtub fill up. Our other cats would bully him to some extent because he was so small, and before we started keeping all our cats indoors, he would go to a neighbor’s house and sleep under her evergreen shrubbery for a few hours on summer afternoons — probably just to get some peace and quiet. When he died, we had our own brief “funeral,” as we usually do when a pet dies, and buried him in the back yard.

Now we have Kato and his sister, Sadie (Jazz fans will think of the jazz tune “Sister Sadie”), and they make up to some extent for the loss of Cookie. They are both lively and active. Kato can’t wait to get out in the breezeway to watch the birds in the morning. He’s so excited, he’s literally jumping up and down by the door. And there are other times when, running around the house, he’s so energetic he prances like a gazelle.

Both Kato and Sadie were strays born in a crawlspace under an apartment building. Both are just ordinary alleycats, but Kato is an attractive orange-brown color, while Sadie is more of a coffee-with-cream brown. She is smaller and somewhat quieter than her brother; both were half wild at first but are gradually becoming more-friendly “lap-cats.”

Of course it is arguable that people who adopt stray cats, and have funerals for them when they die, are being foolish, and that’s probably true. We are mostly all foolish in one way or another. But I can’t help thinking of the local “Christian conservative” writer of letters to the editor who, a few years ago, wrote in saying people were too concerned with their pets — who, after all, didn’t have souls like humans — and not concerned enough about true religion (as he defined it). There was a wonderful tide of letters in response from pet-owners telling him, in effect, that he was an ignoramus. So we’re all fools at times — some bigger than others.

Now, as I look out the window, the snow has stopped, though I seem to remember the weatherman saying there will be more this afternoon. Out around our oak tree I see a blue jay and a cardinal, and the fox squirrels have been joined by one black squirrel. We’ve been seeing the black squirrels in our yard occasionally for the last year or so. According to what I’ve read, they are a color variation of the species called “gray squirrel.” (I’ve also seen the ordinary gray form of the gray squirrel species in our yard, though only rarely, and not recently.) The black squirrels (or gray squirrels) are smaller than the more plentiful fox squirrels and more acrobatic when jumping around in the tree branches.

Every fall for the last few years I have been going out in the country and collecting corn left after the farmers have finished their harvest. (One of my country cousins tells me I’m doing them a favor, since fewer corn plants will be coming up next year if they plant soy beans in the same field.) Putting out lots of corn seems to keep the squirrels from raiding the bird feeder quite as much, though they are really attracted to those sunflower seeds.

We seem to think about animals a lot during the winter, including the Holiday season. (We’ve also had a young possum coming around, and my wife puts out bread and even a little cat food for it sometimes.) I usually take part in a Christmas Bird Count every year around this time. The idea of this is to see how many different species of birds the group can find in a 15-mile diameter circle in one winter day. (Later note: The count was held on December 17th in Knox County this year, and we found 67 species for the day. My most interesting find was a pileated woodpecker in Green Oaks, the Knox College property near Oak Run.)

Of course, animals are popular symbols during this season. There are the animals in the Christian manger scene representing the birth of Jesus. And then there are popular animal symbols like Rudolf the Red-nosed Reindeer (and the Budweiser Clydesdales) associated with the Holiday season. What is it about animals, that we associated them with this season?...

It’s now the middle of the afternoon. The snow has started again and is falling steadily. I’ve just returned from some errands, and the streets are getting slippery. I put out some more corn for the squirrels and birdseed for the birds. A few cardinals and starlings were feeding rapidly, and Kato is watching them from his spot by the breezeway. I bring Kato in, and the next time I look, the birds are gone from the driveway, though three mourning doves are eating corn left by the squirrels around the oak tree. Except for Kato, our cats are curled up sleeping.

Later, as darkness descends, the snow finally ends and the Holiday lights shine brightly. It’s a time when we hope “all creatures great and small” are well-fed and protected from the winter cold. We say the Holiday season is a “season for children.” What we really mean is that it is a season for child-like innocence and wonder. Maybe animals, the wild kind and our domestic animals and pets, remind us of that innocence and simplicity that, if we are lucky, we can sometimes recapture this time of year. Happy Holidays.