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Kansas School Naturalist


KSN - Vol. 1, No. 2 - Wildlife in Winter

The cover picture, taken by Donald S Lacroix of Amherst, Massachusetts, shows a type of snow clue one is not likely to find in Kansas. These tracks were made by a person wearing snowshoes.

Volume 1, Number 2 - December 1954

Wildlife in Winter

 

ABOUT THIS ISSUE

Published by
The Kansas State Teachers College of Emporia
John E King, President

Prepared and Issued by
The Department of Biology, with the cooperation of the Departments of Education and Social Science

Editor: John Breukelman, Head, Department of Biology
Editorial Committee: Ina M. Borman, Helen M. Douglass, Dixon Smith, H.A. Stephens

Online format by: Terri Weast

The Kansas School Naturalist is sent upon request, free of charge to any citizen of Kansas.

The Kansas School Naturalist is published in October, December, February and April of each year by The Kansas State Teachers College, Emporia, Kansas. Second-class mail privileges authorized at Emporia, Kansas.

 


 

WINTER IN KANSAS

INTRODUCTION

It has been said that only a stranger or a fool tries to guess what Kansas weather will be more than a few minutes ahead. Kansas winters are said to be especially variable.

The average January temperature at Topeka is about 29°F, but this statement doesn't really mean much. For example, during January, 1930, the average was 17°, while in January, 1933, it was 41°. Temperatures of -40° have been recorded, yet many winters go by in Southeastern Kansas without a zero reading. Annual snowfalls as low as two inches and as high as fifty inches have been recorded. Sometimes the heaviest snow of the winter comes as early as November and sometimes as late as March. If we measure the length of the winter season from the time of the first killing frost in the fall to the last one in the spring, the average winter is about 165 days long in Southeastern Kansas, and about 210 days in Northwestern Kansas. At Emporia the winter has been as short as 141 days and as long as 226, with an average of 178.

During some winters ponds and lakes scarcely freeze over, while in others a layer of ice a foot thick may cover them for weeks. The water in shallow pools and roadside ditches may in some winters freeze solid. The frozen upper layer of soil may be only a few inches deep one winter and two feet deep the next. If the soil is covered with a thick layer of snow during the coldest weather, it may scarcely freeze even at the surface because the snow acts as a blanket.

Things to do in your own school:

1. Keep a daily record of temperature. The thermometer should be placed where the sun will not shine on it. Read the temperature just before school starts in the morning, at noon, and after school closes in the afternoon. Pupils may wish to read the temperatures at home before and after school and on Saturdays and Sundays. Charts can be made and posted on the school bulletin board.

2. Keep a snowfall record - date of snowfall, depth of snow on the level, depth of drifts.

3. On a cold day, dig into the soil. How far down is the soil frozen?

4. Bring a lump of frozen soil from below the frost line into the schoolroom and keep the samples in a warm place. Do you find any living things in the soil after it has been warm for a few days?

HOW ANIMALS SURVIVE THE WINTER

Have you ever thought you would like to crawl into a cozy bed the first freezing night in October and not bother to wake up until the first warm morning in April? If you were a frog, lizard, turtle or snake, you would do just that. All of these animals, as well as many insects, snails, centipedes and others, go into a "winter sleep" known as hibernation. Frogs and other water animals burrow into the mud at the bottom of a pool; lizards dig in under a rock ledge or log; both go down far enough to escape freezing during the cold winter days and nights. All of these animals are "coldblooded." They do not control their body temperatures. Like an unheated building they warm up and cool off as the outdoor temperatures go up and down. If cold-blooded animals did not go into protected places, they would freeze to death. Even some warm-blooded animals, such as ground squirrels, woodchucks, and raccoons, hibernate. While they are in their winter burrows, their heart and breathing rates become so slow that they can hardly be measured, their body temperatures fall to a degree or two above that of the surrounding mud or soil, and the fat stored in their bodies during summer and fall is used for food.

Hibernation is only one way of living through the winter. There are many others. Many birds travel great distances to warmer regions, thus escaping winter altogether. A list of such birds is found on page 10.

Other birds, and most mammals remain active even in the coldest weather. These must find plenty of food. The colder the weather is, the more food it takes to keep up the animal's body heat, just as it takes more fuel to keep the schoolroom or home warm in colder weather.

If birds and fur bearers can find enough to eat, they can develop enough body heat to live through even the most severe winter. They are likely to suffer more from lack of food than from severe cold.

For most animals, food is hard to find in winter. Birds that eat insects in summer must change to something like weed seeds for winter. But deep snow or icy rain may cover weed seeds, so that birds cannot get them. See page 16 for suggestions for helping birds in winter.

WEEDS ABOVE THE SNOW

In an agricultural state like Kansas we think first about the harm that weeds do. They use soil moisture which crops would otherwise have. Insect pets use them for winter homes and they are nuisances in fields and gardens. However, they also do some good. They ·check soil erosion, add organic matter to the soil, check drifting snow so it will add to soil moisture, and provide seeds for birds during the winter. If we were birds, we would probably consider nearly all weeds useful and beneficial.

The tops of weeds that stick up through the snow are well supplied with seeds. If a sparrow lights on the top of a pigweed or ragweed, it will shake loose some of the seeds, which will fall on the snow. It would take a deeper snow than occurs in Kansas to cover all weed tops. Wild sunflowers, smartweed, curly dock, pepper grass, mullein, and dozens of other weeds are tall enough to keep their heads above all but the deepest snows.

The seeds of plants provide good animal food. They contain proteins, fats and carbohydrates in compact form.

Many of the weeds that are so important to birds do not do much harm even to crops, especially when they grow in out-of-the-way places, along fences, in corners, or in places not being cultivated.

How many different kinds of weeds can you find in your school or home yard? Are the birds using the weeds for food or shelter?


The title for this page came from an article on photographing weed tops on a snow background, in the second of the series of educational inserts in Nature Magazine, appearing in December, 1938.


SNOW AS COVER

A blanket of snow on the ground furnishes cover for many animals. A covey of bobwhite spends a much more comfortable winter night in a burrow with a soft snow bank for a blanket than roosting on the exposed branch of a leafless tree. The burrow not only keeps the bobwhites warm, but also provides a hiding place from hawks, coyotes, and other predators.

The snow cover may be both helpful and harmful. The same snow that protects birds is sometimes so deep that it also covers the weed seeds the birds need for food.

In the woods, most of the snow stays about where it falls, making a fairly even cover. In the fields and pastures it may be blown into drifts by the wind. In the open field the snow cover may be very thin, with the drifts piled high along fences and hedge rows, around buildings, and in roadside ditches.

Sometimes, when ponds are frozen over, a thick layer of snow on top of the ice shuts off the sunlight so that the pond plants cannot give off oxygen for the fish, and the fish may die. Thus, the same snow cover which helps land animals may sometimes be harmful to water life.

The illustrations below were redrawn from the "Cover" issue (Vol. 38, No.4, Spring 1945) of The Cornell Rural School Leaflet, the magazine after which The Kansas School Naturalist was patterened, and to which we are indebted for many ideas and much information.

WINTER FUR BEARERS

Cockrum, in his book Mammals of Kansas, lists eighty species of native mammals, not counting dogs, cats, horses, and other domesticated animals. Among these eighty are some of the best known species of winter wildlife, such as the opossum, jack rabbit, cottontail, squirrel, muskrat, coyote, raccoon, and skunk. Equipped with perfectly fitted fur coats, they are well protected against winter cold.

The fur bearers are not only interesting forms of wildlife to observe and study, but they are rather useful. For example, during the winter, thousands of skunks, opossums, muskrats and other fur bearers are trapped for their skins, or pelts, which are used to make fur coats, muffs, caps and the like. Many fur bearers, such as coyotes, eat mice, gophers and other rodents which harm our crops.

During the winter, when grass, fruits and insects are not available, animals must feed on what is left - weed seeds and grains, bark and dried vegetable matter, rats and mice, garbage and carrion. Many of the fur bearers hibernate during the worst of the winter weather but are active during the milder days. When they are in hibernation, they do not eat, but while they are active they need enough food to keep up their body heat.

Tracks of some of the fur bearers may be found after a snowfall; some of these are pictured on page 9.

Cockrum, E. Lendell, Mammals of Kansas, University of Kansas Publications, Museum of Natural History, Lawrence, Kansas, 1952.

SNOW CLUES

So you'd like to be a detective? After the first snowfall, your home or school yard will be full of clues for you to practice on. Any animal that walks, runs, crawls or hops about after the snowfall will leave tracks in the snow. You can tell from these tracks how big the animal was, whether it was two-or four-footed, and in which direction it was going. What else might you detect?

On the opposite page are some snow clues. See the difference between the house sparrow track (No.1) and the horned lark track (No.2) . The sparrow hops; the lark walks.

Compare the dog track (No. 3) and the cat track (No.4). The dog "drags" his feet somewhat and shows his claws; the cat places his hind foot neatly into the track made by the front foot and does not show his claws.

Among the most common snow tracks in Kansas are those of the cottontail (No. .5). See how he puts down one forefoot, then the other forefoot, then both hind feet in front of and outside of the tracks made by the forefeet.

On the opposite page are some of the other common snow tracks to be found in Kansas. Of course, many of these tracks may also be found in mud, sand or soft earth when no snow is on the ground.

Animal tracks diagram

FOR YOUR LIBRARY:

Burt and Grossenheider, Field Guide To The Mammals, Houghton Mifflin Co., Chicago, Ill., $3.75.

Headstrom, Bird's Nests, Ives Washburn Inc., New York City, $2.75.

Jaques, How To Know The Insects, Wm. C. Brown Co., Dubuque, Ia., Paper $1.00, Cloth $1.80.

Jaques, How To Know The Land Birds, Wm. C. Brown., Paper $1.00, Cloth $1.80.

Murie, Field Guide To Animal Tracks, Houghton Mifflin, $3.75.

Zim and Cottam, Insects, (A Golden Nature Guide) Simon and Schuster, New York City, Paper $1.00, Cloth $2.00.


Future issues of The Kansas School Naturalist, as now planned: December - Wildlife in Winter; February, 1955 - Children's Books in Nature Study; April, 1955 - 0utdoors; October, 1955 - Autumn Wildflowers.


 

WHERE DO OUR NESTING BIRDS SPEND THE WINTER

In this table the first column lists 25 common Kansas nesting birds which do not ordinarily stay here in winter; the second column indicates the months in which the birds may usually be seen in Kansas; the third column shows where they are during the winter.

1. Great blue heron Mar.-Oct. Southern states to South America
2. American bittern Apr.-Oct. Southern states, West Indies
3. Blue-winged teal Mar.-Nov. Southern states, Mexico, Central America
4. Turkey vulture Mar.-Oct. Southern states
5. Killdeer Feb.-Oct. Middle United States to South America

6. Mourning dove Mar.-Oct. Southern States to Panama
7. Yellow-billed cuckoo Apr.-Aug. South America
8. Nighthawk May-Oct. Mexico to South America
9. Chimney swift Apr.-Oct. Amazon basin

10. Hummingbird Apr.-Oct. Southern states to Panama
11. Eastern kingbird Apr.-Sept. Southern Mexico to South America
12. Phoebe Mar.-Oct. Southern states
13. Barn swallow Apr.-Oct. Mexico to Brazil
14. Purple martin Mar.-Sept. Brazil
15. House wren Apr.-Oct. Gulf states, Mexico

16. Red-eyed vireo Apr.-Sept. Mexico to Ecuador and Brazil
17. Catbird May-Sept. Central America to Panama, Cuba
18. Brown thrasher Mar.-Oct. Southern states to Panama
19. Wood thrush Apr.-Sept. Southern states to Panama

20. Yellow warbler Apr.-Sept. Mexico to Peru and Brazil
21. Red-wing Feb.-Nov. Southern states
22. Baltimore oriole May-Sept. Central America to Colombia
23. Cowbird Feb.-Oct. Southern states
24. Dickcissel May-Sept. Central and South America
25. Field sparrow Feb.-Sept. Southern states

The tabular summary of winter birds, pages 12 to 15, was prepared by H. A. Stephens, biology instructor. The pictures for this issue, except those on page 16, were drawn by Robert F. Clarke, senior biology student.


Write to the Kansas Forestry Fish and Game Commission, Pratt, Kansas, about films available to schools.


Are you a bird watcher? Would you like to be? Are you interested in birds? Are you a member of the Kansas Ornithological Society? If you answer "yes" to any of the first three questions and "no" to the last, write to Dr. Rollin Baker, Museum of Natural History, University of Kansas, Lawrence, Kansas, and ask for information about the Society and its journal.


INSECTS IN WINTER

It may seem a little odd that we talk about looking for insects in the winter, but that is the best time to find some of them.

Some insects live through the winter in the adult stage, some as the larva, some as the pupa, and still others as an egg. The problem is: just where would you look for these insects? There is no use looking for the Monarch butterfly because he has flown south. The house flies have all crawled into some hiding place and are hibernating. The grasshoppers have died, leaving their eggs in the ground to hatch next spring.

However, if your school is near a creek, river, or woods, you may find an old rotten log. Just roll it over and break it open. There you may find a few adult beetles, or the larva of the June beetle, which we call the grub worm. There may be some wasps there, too, so watch out if you collect and take them into a warm room. You may also find the wooly bear, all wrapped up in a hairy blanket.

If the creek is shallow and rocky and is not frozen, turn over a few of the flat rocks and you will find the young of many insects. These may include the dragon fly, may fly, dobson fly (hellgrammite), and caddis fly in its little house of sticks and stones. You may also find a few water beetles.

On the bushes near the stream or along a roadside, you may find the cocoons of the Cecropia moth or the Polyphemus moth. The Cecropia moth cocoon is about three inches long, is pointed at both ends and will be fastened tightly to a branch. It has a tough outer covering and a silky inner covering over the brown pupa. The Polyphemus cocoon is oval and about one and one-fourth inches long. It is usually found hanging by a few silk threads and often falls to the ground before spring. The adults will emerge from these cocoons if you take them into the school room and keep them until spring. You should put them in a window so they will be cool, dip them in water occasionally and wait.

Once in a while you may find the egg case of the praying mantis. It will be about an inch long and will be glued to a stick or to the underside of a rock. The eggs look like little sticks stood on end at an angle and glued together.

Let's all go out to look for insect eggs, larva, pupa, or adults, even though it is winter.

BIRD IDENTIFICATION

NAME / PICTURE DESCRIPTION RANGE FOOD ECOLOGICAL HABITS
MARSH HAWK
Marsh Hawk
Larger than crow. Male gray with black wing tips, silvery white beneath. Female streaked, brownish, lighter below. Both have white
rump. Tail long, barred with black. Wings long, narrow, rounded.
Prairies and marshes
throughout United
States.
Small mice, rabbits,
frogs, snakes.
Flies low over meadows, often hunting
up and down the shallow valleys.
Wings held slightly above the level of the body while sailing. Perches on the
ground or low posts. While flying, body
may tilt from side to side as the bird
turns. The only voice is a short series of high pitched squeaks. Here all year.
BOBWHITE
Bobwhite
A chunky bird about the size of a robin, but with heavy body, short tail. Body mottled reddish brown. Male, white throat and eye streak; female, brownish throat and eye streak. Song a distinct "Bobwhite" with rising inflection at end. United States east of Rockies. Introduced west. Seeds, fruits, buds, grains, greens, insects. A ground bird, runs rapidly. Flies with rapid wing beat and with a whir. Found in small covies except in nesting season. A game bird, should be protected except during hunting season. Nesting sites destroyed by burning fence rows and plowing up grass cover. The Kansas Forestry Fish, and Game Commission has a picture of them called Whirring Wings, which is available to schools.
HORNED OWL
Horned Owl
Much larger than crow, Back mottled brown. Underside lighter with streaks of dark on breast and cross bars of dark on abdomen. A definite white throat patch and some white around bill. Area near eye reddish brown. Body held vertically when sitting. Throughout United States, not common in Western Kansas. Rabbits, rats, mice, insects, occasionally birds and chickens. Lives almost anywhere, usually in wooded areas around creeks, but often in city parks. May be found sitting in a tree near the trunk or in a cavity. Flies quietly, glides a great deal. On dark days starts hunting in mid-afternoon, usually seen at twilight. Crows, natural enemies, often start a noisy rumpus when
finding an owl. Call a series of resonant hoots, often two hoots run together. Here all year.
DOWNY WOODPECKER
Downy Woodpecker
About the size of a house sparrow. Wings mottled black and white, white streak down the back. Crown black, male has red spot on back of head. Head streaked with black and white. The white outer tail feathers marked with black. Bill short and sharp. Throughout United States. Boring insects, caterpillars, weevils from dead wood, in winter from weeds. May be found anywhere; woodlots, creeks, or in the city. In winter it feeds from giant ragweed stalks along the roadsides.
Does a systematic job of searching
tree trunks for insects, clinging to the tree with its feet and supporting itself with its stiff tail feathers pressed against the tree. Voice a sharp "peenk ." Here all year.
BLUE JAY
Blue Jay
Larger than robin. Bright blue above and marked with dark blue and white. A crest usually visible. Tail barred with dark blue, and the tips of the outer feathers white. A black line across the chest and to the ear area. East of Rockies. Mostly insects with some fruit. In winter it eats corn, acorns a nd weed. seed. A noisy bird of town and country. Found in areas with lots of trees. In the fall it may be seen in flocks of 25 or 30, since some of them migrate south. Some found in Kansas all year. Fierce fighters in defense of their nests, and will chase other birds away from food or water. Voice usually shrill but sometimes a rich warble.
CROW
Crow
About 20 inches from tip of beak to tip of tail. All black. May be seen flying over
fields or sitting on the ground. Perches in dead trees and on fence posts where it can see in all directions. Bill heavy.
Throughout United States. Insects, waste corn, fruits, seeds, nuts, carrion, mice, sometimes young birds. Our only common large, all-black bird.
In winter they gather in large flocks for roosting. sometimes as many as 100,000
in an area. Travel as far as 50 miles for food during one day. In summer they spread out for nesting. Often seen being chased by smaller birds, especially the kingbird. Voice a
coarse "caw."
ROBIN
Robin
About 9 inches long. Back gray-brown and breast brick-red. A white spot underneath, near the tail. Bill yellowish. Top of the male's head black. White spots may be seen at the tip of the outer tail feathers. Young birds have speckled breast. Throughout United States. Fruit, worms, grubs, insects, seeds and grain. The common bird of our towns . Some go south in winter; some remain in Kansas. Can be attracted by feeding stations and bird baths. Often quarrel over nesting areas, but peaceful winter. Song is a series of rolling carols broken into phrases. Alarm note loud and piercing.
STARLING
Starling
Slightly smaller than the robin, with a short tail. Shaped somewhat like the meadowlark. In winter: bill yellow, body glossy dark green and purple. In summer: bill dark and
feathers spotted with whitish or yellowish.
Throughout United States. Introduced from Europe. Fruits grasshoppers, beetles, weevils, seeds. Usually found in small flocks, and associated with redwing blackbirds and
cowbirds. Often go into barns for roosting
during cold weather. Roost on buildings in cities. Flight a straight line, with rapid wing beat, body appearing "front-heavy." A group may maneuver as if they were tied together. Good imitators of other bird songs, but have a rolling warble of their own. Here all year.
HOUSE SPARROW
House Sparrow
A small bird about 6 inches long. Male with gray crown, black throat, reddish brown back, gray breast, and white bar on wing. Female more gray-brown, with a lighter breast. In winter the black of male partly covered with gray. Throughout United States. Seeds, fruits. grains, insects. Usually found in small flocks, commonly seen in low bushes or on the ground, either on the farm or in the city. If you scare up a small flock of small birds near farm buildings, they are most likely to be the house sparrow. Common around chicken yards and other feeding pens. Song usually a short "cheep," sometimes a short warble. Here all year.
MEADOWLARK
Meadowlark
A short chunky bird ,smaller than the robin. Breast and throat bright yellow with a black V on the upper breast. Back mottled brown and tan. Top of head brown with a light streak through the middle. White outer tail feathers show in flight. Mainly in Central United States, but east of the Rockies. Beetles, grasshoppers and weed seeds. Lives in open prairies and fields coming into farm yards during heavy snow. (Kansas has both eastern and western meadowlarks. They look alike: song of the western is deeper, more rolling and more musical.) When flushed from sitting, they flash their white outer tail feathers. Wing beat rapid, the wings held slightly downward when sailing. Here all year.
CARDINAL
Cardinal
A bright red bird smaller than robin. Prominent red crest, and black patch at base of bill. Bill reddish, short and thick for cracking seeds. Female brownish with some red, and with a beautiful orange-red area under the wing. East of
the Rockies.
Wild fruits, weed seeds, insects Lives mostly in low bushes, but goes to a high tree to sing. Easily attracted in winter by placing sunflower or melon seeds in a feeder. Does not migrate; is found in Kansas all year, usually in pairs.
GOLDFINCH
Goldfinch
Smaller than the house sparrow. Male in summer bright yellow with black
wings, tail and top of head. Female not as bright. In winter both sexes grayish, with a tinge of yellow. Wings and tail dark, with a great deal of white in them.
Throughout
United States.
Insects, weed
seeds, and buds.
Flies in up-and-down waves, often singing its canary-like song as it dips. While feeding on roadside weeds in winter, small flock may be chattering with each other. Stay in wooded areas in winter; but come into the open on sunny days. May not be recognized in winter because the yellow color is often lacking. Fond of sunflower and giant ragweed seeds.
SLATE COLORED JUNCO
Slate Colored Junco
Smaller than the house sparrow. Head, throat, back, and breast slate gray. Lower part of body white. Tail dark, with two white outer feathers on each side. Female more brownish , but with the write outer tail (sic) feathers. Winters throughout
United States.
Weed seeds and wild fruits.
Insects in
the summer.
A common winter resident. Feeds on the ground, and often seen in small flocks in the woods or along bushy roadsides. Tree sparrows commonly mingle with them. In extremely cold weather juncos will roost in sheds or barns, but prefer cedar or other thick trees. Brush piles are favorite daytime spots, where the birds twitter or trill as they feed.
TREE SPARROW
Tree Sparrow
Smaller than the house sparrow. The main marks to look for are the redbrown cap, the one dark spot on the breast, and the two white wing bars. Back streaked and mottled with brown; breast and abdomen light gray. Bill dark above and yellow below. Winters throughout United States. Not in the Rockies. Weed seeds and grains of grass. Common winter bird, often seen among flocks of juncos, or alone. Usually feeds on the ground, sometimes jumping up to get seeds from an unopened see head. Usually chatter lightly as they feed but in spring may sing a warbling song, prefer farm woodlots or weedy brushy roadsides where food and shelter are abundant.
HARRIS'S SPARROW
Harris's Sparrow
Larger than the house sparrow and with a long tail. Adult, with black crown, face and throat. Back, wings, and tail brown, breast white. Two white wing bars. Bill pinkish. Young have white throat, with black streaks on chest. Buff on face. Winters in southern half of United States. Seeds and insects scratched from under
the leaves.
Largest of our sparrows, and strictly a winter resident, but staying late in the spring. Most often seen in roadside thickets, weed patches, or brush piles, or in cold weather in the woods. Feeds on the ground, where it can be seen or heard scratching in the leaves. A chittering song, but the most common call a single note uttered twice in
succession.

BIRD FEEDERS

Bird Feeder diagrams

The above sketches by Evan Lindquist, freshman biology student at Kansas State Teachers College of Emporia, shows several types of bird feeders that can be built at home or at school.

The window shelf, No.1, can be built about as plain or as fancy as you want it. A roof may be put over it to keep off rain and snow, or the shelf may be protected by the window awning.

The weathervane feeder, No.2, if mounted so as to turn freely, will be turned by the wind so that the closed side is always toward the wind, so the birds may eat in the sheltered space.

For birds that eat insects and other animal life, a good substitute is suet. This can be placed in a wire holder (No.6) or a knitted bag (N o. 4) to be suspended from a branch, clothes line, or other support. A piece of hail screen attached to a tree trunk (No.3) is a simple and effective suet holder.

A variety of self feeders like No.5 are suitable for birds that like grain Or weed seeds. You can think of several other kinds of bird feeders. All sorts of boxes or containers can be used. Do not paint your bird feeder-birds seem to prefer weathered wood.

 


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