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It’s busy out there

This story is featured in Montana Outdoors November-December 2017 issue

hen temperatures drop far below zero, we often think of the outside as a dead zone.

Plants and mammals are asleep. Birds have flown south. Generally we equate winter’s long nights and cold temperatures with death.

Here’s a wake-up call: Nature in winter is alive. Whether in the woods, on the prairie, or right in town, life is teeming even when we don’t see it.

Let’s start where it’s obvious. The bird feeder in your yard is buzzing with house sparrows and finches, eating birdseed and surviving.

Meanwhile, lurking in the bushes nearby might be a sharp-shinned hawk, looking to snare a careless songbird.

Depending on where you live, gray squirrels, fox squirrels, and cottontail rabbits scurry about trying to avoid the neighbor’s house cat. And if it’s night, the rabbits and cats are both in the sights of a great horned owl.

Which brings us to love in the cold.

In January and February, great horned owls will be breeding. All that hooting you hear at night isn’t just local owls harmonizing for fun. They’re looking for mates.

After mating, the owls continue their aggressive hooting, not to proclaim their love and affection but to stake out a nesting territory and warn other owls away. If you hear two owls hooting together in winter, the deeper voice is the male’s (even though the female is larger).

The bald eagle is another winter romantic. By the end of February, many Montana bald eagles are sitting on eggs. (Golden eagles mate and nest later, in early spring.)

Why would bald eagles and great horned owls mate and lay eggs now? Because it takes so long to raise their young. They need to reproduce now so they can teach their young to hunt in the summer when prey is abundant and easier to catch.

While love is in the treetops, animals on the prairie, under that blanket of snow, are focused mostly on simple survival. Various rodent species scurry about looking for seeds to eat, while a least weasel seeking mouse meat might be close behind.

With their incredible hearing, coyotes sit atop the snow and listen for meadow voles running below. A coyote’s hearing is so acute it can pounce on and capture a rodent underneath the snow without ever seeing its prey.

Cruising just above the prairie might be a rough-legged hawk, a winter resident that migrates south to “balmy” Montana from the Arctic, looking for the same rodents it eats back home. It’s tough to be a vole.

Insects are mostly dead or asleep in their larval stage, but honeybees are very much alive and awake, clustered in a man-made hive or an old tree.

There’s another insect active in the winter woods. On a mild, sunny winter day, check next to trees for snow that looks like someone spilled black pepper on it.

Closer inspection will reveal tiny insects jumping about. Those are snow fleas, also known as springtails. The minute insects live under leaves and on tree bark and perform their civic duty by eating organic debris on the forest floor. Unable to control the direction of their jumping, on warm winter days springtails often end up in the snow.

And you thought nothing was going on outside today.Bear bullet

Bruce Auchly manages the FWP Regional Information and Education Program in Great Falls. Ed Jenne is a Missoula illustrator.

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