A new year means many new beginnings

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milky way

A new year is a time for beginnings. And the natural world is replete with examples. Though the plant world is presently dormant, a variety of animals have already begun a new cycle of life.

Black bears mate in early summer when food is abundant, but embryos do not implant on the uterine wall until late fall when bears retire to a hollow log, a hollow tree, or even a large brush pile.

In late January, bears give birth to the next generation. Usually, two cubs are born blind and covered with just a coat of fuzz. They weigh just seven to 12 ounces at birth — about the size of a guinea pig. By the time cubs reach six weeks of age, their eyes open, they are well furred, and weigh about two pounds.

At eight weeks, they may leave the den with their mother for short periods, weigh about five pounds, and begin learning how to be a bear.

Great horned owls

Great horned owls have been courting since before Thanksgiving. More recently I heard a pair dueting less than two weeks ago. The male woos the female with food and noisy aerial displays. He defends her. And they duet.

Eventually, they select a nest site, often an old red-tailed hawk or crow nest. The female lays the first of her two or three eggs in late January or early February. At three-day intervals, she lays another egg.

Incubation begins immediately with the first egg. This is why you may see photographs of owlets of several sizes in the same nest. In a brood of three, the eldest sibling may be six days older than the youngest.

Incubation continues for 26 to 35 days; the first egg laid is the first to hatch. Snow sometimes blankets the attending parent, but its soft downy feathers keep eggs and chicks warm and dry.

Nestling horned owls remain in the nest for more than two months. They begin to exercise their wings at six weeks, but they cannot fly until they are about 10 weeks old. Young owls remain dependent on their parents for food well into fall.

Bald eagles

Bald eagles are also notoriously early nesters. Courtship flights began well before Christmas.

At least one eagle nest cam in Florida is already online for anyone to watch. Just google “live bald eagle nest cam” to find one near you. Two years ago, a bald eagle nest cam near Hanover, Pennsylvania, attracted nearly 1.5 million viewers to observe an active nest.

Eagles lay two eggs in late January or early February. The nesting chronology parallels that of great horned owls. Incubation lasts about 35 days. Young eagles make their first flight when about 10 to 12 weeks old.

As winter proceeds, more beginnings will become evident. Snow will melt. Sap will flow. Buds will swell. And eventually, new plant growth will burst through the soil.

Look up

But for evidence of the ultimate beginning, gaze high into the night sky. Thousands of distant stars illuminate crisp clear January nights. The light we see from the most distant stars left their sources billions of years ago. Some of those stars may no longer even exist, but their light continues to race across the universe until we see it.

The vastness of the universe is best appreciated by noting the speed of light, 186,000 miles per second. A light year is the distance light travels in one year, about 5.9 trillion miles.

The nearest star to our sun, Proxima Centauri is 4.24 light years away.

Much of the star shine we see at night began its journey toward Earth before our planet even existed.

Forget waking bears, nesting owls and eagles, or blooming flowers. Instead, find a dark sky and observe the Milky Way on a clear January night. That “milk,” the haze of billions of distant stars, represents the beginning of the universe, the beginning of time itself.

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Scott Shalaway, who holds a Ph.D. in wildlife ecology from Michigan State University, writes from his home in rural West Virginia. A former faculty member at Oklahoma State University and the University of Oklahoma Biological Station, he has been writing a weekly nature column for newspapers and freelancing for magazines since 1986. He can be heard on Birds & Nature from 3-4 p.m. Sunday afternoons on 620 KHB Radio, Pittsburgh, or live online anywhere at www.khbradio.com, or on the Tune-In radio app. Visit his website at www.drshalaway.com or contact him directly at sshalaway@aol.com or 2222 Fish Ridge Road, Cameron, WV 26033.

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