Winter Neighbors

~by Jim Eagleman

In his 1886 poem, Winter Neighbors, John Burroughs wrote:
“… the best-kept grounds relapse to a state of nature; under the pressure of the cold all the wild creatures become outlaws, and roam abroad beyond their usual haunts…”
The author remarks of living close to a few animals that sought safety and warmth in his house. A rabbit takes up residency under his floorboards, and since it ventured out at night, he suspects he disturbed the rabbit’s sleep more than it disturbed his. It might be he is more tolerant of his wild neighbors than us; any nibbling, gnawing, or scampering of clawed feet in the house is usually met with a strategy to buy more mouse traps. Our wood pile in the shed, as evident by the nests of bark and grass I disturb, looks like a mouse court was called into session.
A professor once stated to us young wildlife students that winter is the most severe, life- threatening time for animals. Many won’t make it, he said. In the same breath, he suggested we dress better for our next time afield, or we might experience a similar fate. The class was held during a winter term. We ventured out in drizzling rain, nearly unbearable cold—once in an absolute blizzard. What lessons we learned made a life-long impression. I can still recall my cold feet and the deep snow, and from my amateur perspective, how tough it must be for wild creatures.
Crossing a field to the road, we came upon a road-killed ‘possum that was quite flat. A grad student and class clown said it made a great frisbee as he picked it up and attempted to sail it past us. Normal jokes ensued. The professor wasn’t impressed and said to look closely at the possum’s ears. We found them as short, wrinkled black stubs instead of normal, fleshy ears.
“So, how did this happen, and more importantly, why?” he asked. We stammered and looked at each other to answer. He added another question. “What made the ‘possum leave a burrow, risk exposure and go out in the worst weather imaginable?” Someone mumbled, “food?”
Back in class, a Leopold quote was written on the board.
“January observations can be as simple and peaceful as snow and almost as continuous as cold. There is time not only to see who has done what, but to speculate why.”
With Aldo Leopold’s Game Management text as a class reference, discussions and assigned reading always came back to the scientist’s perspective. We discussed the possum venturing out in search of a meal, only to be met with fate, and a truck! It had to be a determined effort in the cold, and the only discomfort it might face was frost-bit ears. That is, until it crossed the road.
A Leopold term, “Limiting Factors,” was discussed. We listed all the things a wild animal experiences: disease, predation, accidents, severe weather, hunting, poor habitat, etc. If a possum, or any other animal, is subject to all these things and can still live ’till spring, we said, “It’s almost a miracle!”—and a testament to their resiliency.
There are more hardships facing wildlife during each winter season than at any other time. Winter, the great equalizer, will test the strongest and most fit; it will determine if animals make it or not. It’s a cruel and harsh realization, but a natural one.
During our winter nature hikes, we often look for tracks and signs animals are active. Droppings, dried grape and persimmon debris, leaf disturbance on a south-facing slope, a heart-shaped track, help us decide if it’s a deer, turkey, or songbird. The longer we are out, the more we see, and it is our own preparedness that allows more observations. Recalling my professor’s reminder to dress for conditions, I now wear appropriate clothes and enjoy every winter season. I’ve nearly learned as much from my own observations—taking time to look—as I have from reading and study. He said it’s a lifelong pursuit—24- 7, 365. I agree.
Winter neighbors move in without much fuss and live near us undetected. Residency may have occurred months before we notice a burrow, food stash, or hidden nest. My guess is a few mice and maybe other critters have already made your home their winter home. Crows announce a daily visit with food scraps to the compost pile. I see a possum came by for a meal. A daily clean-up crew of squirrels and doves scours the ground under the bird feeders.
For those of us who choose to live close to nature, there are a few concessions. We come to realize that animals, just like us, seek out comfort and warmth. Are we willing to accept a small bit of inconvenience and at least for a short time, maybe just for the cold winter, be a good neighbor?
Burroughs contends he gets no benefit from his wild neighbor, the rabbit, as he offers a bit of apple. “I think I can feel her good-will through the floor, and I hope she can feel mine.”