Have You Heard

I don’t know if you guys have heard yet, but it is COLD here in the North. It’s cold enough that today, on New Years day, I have a chance to get a million things done but instead I am like, “Is it really worth risking my life to go to the grocery store?”

Sister Tash and I were comparing our winter supplies when we traveled up north on Saturday. She had me beat because she had thrown a bundle of wood in the back of her minivan. I had all my winter stuff, extra long underwear (I was already wearing a pair under my funeral pants) and socks and boots and blankets and a candle and my warm winter coat. An extra container of water and several lighters. She had a portable campfire in her bundle of wood, beneficial for both warmth and signal light. Luckily, there were no blizzards or car problems or ditches and neither of us needed any of our survival gear.

It’s been cold for days. We knew it was coming. When I was at Walmart a few days ago the shelves were practically bare. We’re not afraid of a heap of snow in the forecast, that won’t clear the shelves like it does in some more southern states, but we’re ready to batten down the hatches when the cold weather comes in.

It made me think of the crane family, who left in late October for warmer climates, and wonder how they’re doing. I just learned that Sandhill Cranes are an endangered species in some states, so I feel lucky that we have a returning, reproducing pair who honor us with their presence each year. Adult cranes, much like the deer, will stay with their babies through the winter, abandoning them in the Spring when it’s time to nest again.

The crane parents were such good parents. You know when there is a nest because the adults, who are always together, start to show up independently in the yard. One of them is always sitting on the nest, and they take turns coming out to eat. Once the babies are hatched one baby follows each parent, and the mom or dad feeds it worms and grubs it digs out of the ground. If you walk out in the yard when the cranes are there, the parents will make sure that no matter where you go, they are between you and the babies. I’ve never had a crane try to chase me away, they know I bring the corn, but I see the adults flapping their wings and chasing off turkeys and sometimes even the baby deer. They are a tall, imposing bird with a giant pointy beak. The turkey’s and squirrels give them a wide berth, mostly.

When the baby cranes were learning to fly (at about three months old), they would run across the yard with their long legs, flapping their giant wings, and the whole crane family would flap along with the baby, encouraging him on. Baby cranes have to get a running start, but adults can leap eight or more feet in the air, and take off from a standstill. Once the babies started to fly, every time one of them ran across the yard and took off, a parent would take off with them, calling to the other crane in the back yard- who would answer. I imagined them saying something like,

“Here he goes again Mildred, I’ll be back.”

The deer moms are not as protective. In the Spring when the fawns are tiny, they keep them hidden and out of sight as much as possible. Mama deer comes to the feeder by herself. But when the fawns are old enough to eat something besides breastmilk she brings them out. Baby deer are like puppies. They chase each other around and kick up their heels. They are curious, I watched one walk up to a ladder that was in the back of the house and lick it, I’ve seen a baby fawn follow a pheasant around just because it wanted to see what it was. Once the babies start to get curious and want to play, mom lets them run around a bit on their own. She walks off and leaves them, and its up to them to figure out where she went. You will see them, nose to the ground, looking for mom. Occasionally they really do get lost and then they walk around bleating until mom comes and finds them.

In the bitter cold like today, along with the slippery roads of winter, we will lose some deer. It is a fact of life that is always hard for me to take. Part of me knows that without the natural order of things, the herd would get out of control and the land would not be able to sustain it, but part of me also loves every single deer and can’t stand it when one goes missing.

Lately, there’s been a yearling buck who comes to the yard with two fawns born this year. I know he is a yearling because of the size of his antlers. I have never seen a buck take in babies. Even when the deer herd up the bucks keep to themselves, herding up with one or two other bucks. It looks like maybe big brother has taken in the two orphans for the winter. (What a good boy he is, his mama would be proud)

The doe’s though, they take in babies almost every winter.

They take them begrudgingly. The deer herd can use every warm body it can gather for heat in the cold, but when they come to eat, Mama doe will ensure her own kids get preference. If the adopted in fawn goes to eat before her fawns have eaten, she will hoof it on the back. This practice breaks my heart, and I will charge out to the back yard with a pitcher of corn to put in an entirely different place so that the baby deer, who will become the runt of the pack, can eat. In the cold like this, I leave little piles of food by all the trees, instead of in one central area, so the deer can come in herds and eat without fighting for rank. Deer hooves are sharp, and a runt deer of the pack will bear the marks, the missing tufts of fur, on her back all winter long.

I know I have no responsibility to the deer. I know they are wild animals and I am not required to keep them fed. When I started putting out a little corn on the ground, it was originally for the pheasants. I took one red solo cup of corn out each morning.
But then, the ducks came, and the deer, and the raccoons and woodchucks and turkeys and cranes. The blue jays, the bunnies, the gophers. The hawks and eagles. The geese, the squirrels and the chickadees.

These days I put out about three ice cream buckets of a corn and sunflower seed mix each day. In the winter I sometimes put it out twice a day, and add some alfalfa. I have worked over the years to ensure I never put enough corn out that the animals rely on me to be their single source of food. I know they have to be able to survive on their own, because I won’t be around forever. It would be irresponsible of me to let their survival rely solely on me, even when its fifteen below outside.

In a town called Orr, way up north in MN, there is a bear sanctuary you can go visit. It was originally a privately owned piece of land that contained a logging camp. The camp had a problem with black bears breaking into the cabins while the workers were gone during the day, so the owner at the time started making giant stacks of pancakes for the bears when he made pancakes for the loggers in the morning, and leaving them outside. He found that as long as he fed the bears, they stayed out of the cabins.

This went on for forty years. The local bakery would donate all their doughnuts at the end of the day to the bears. The owner would let people come and watch the bears eat, and the bears would walk among the people, much like the animals in our yard do.
But eventually, the owner got old and needed to move to assisted living. What could he do about the bears? He did not want to abandon them. Instead, his land became a preserve, and now you can take an old school bus out into the woods, disembark and go directly up onto a platform (You are no longer allowed to mingle with the bears) where you can watch the bears from above, when they come in for their morning and evening meals. These days the bears get healthy meals, people knowing what they do about nutrition and bear’s natural foods, and the buckets are full of fruit and seeds and grains. (Black bears are primarily vegetarians)

It’s having visited that sanctuary that prevents me from creating a situation where the deer or cranes or turkeys won’t be able to survive without me and the food I put out. I don’t think the city is going to let me turn my yard into a preserve someday, so they still need to learn to live off the land.

But that doesn’t mean I’m not going to give them some extra apples when its cold like today, or feel bad for them, or wish I could bring them inside and let them warm up a little.

Because, have you heard? It’s COLD.

Happy New Year- stay warm,
Nic

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