Winter is a fun season, but keep it safe

(Farm and Dairy file photo)

After months of mild weather, frigid winter temperatures and snow arrived this week. But days are already getting longer, new winged visitors are arriving and spring will return in just nine weeks.

Of all the winter birds that visit my backyard, tree sparrows are among the least conspicuous. They usually arrive shortly before Christmas and quickly find seeds that fall from the feeders hanging overhead.

Better late than never

Despite their name, tree sparrows are not forest birds. They nest in northern Canada and Alaska among the stunted trees and shrubs that characterize the tundra. Because of the tundra’s short growing season, tree sparrows raise only a single brood. The female builds the nest on the ground or in a small spruce or willow. She incubates an average of five eggs for about 12 days, then the male helps feed the brood.

Learning to fly

The chicks leave the nest at about 10 days of age and can fly four to five days later. In the fall, tree sparrows head south in search of food and more hospitable weather. By mid to late December, they usually reach us. I find visits by tree sparrows particularly gratifying because they travel so far.

Here, tree sparrows inhabit old fields, forest edges and marshes where they roam in flocks of 30 to 40 individuals. Within these flocks, smaller sub-groups of four to eight birds travel and feed together.

Tree sparrows

They typically feed on the ground or on tray feeders. Tree sparrows are among the easiest of all the native sparrows to identify. At first, a tree sparrow suggests a chipping sparrow, a common summer resident that winters much farther south.

Look for a rusty cap, a rusty line through the eye, a distinctly two-toned bill (dark above, yellow below), two white wing bars and most conspicuously, a plain gray breast punctuated by a dark central spot.

This distinctive “stickpin” makes identification easy, even for beginners. So search the ground beneath your feeders, and look for sparrows with a plain breast and a dark chest spot. They’ll probably hang around the rest of the winter.

Other new birds that have appeared at my feeders the last week are purple finches, white-throated sparrows, and brown-headed cowbirds.

A winter warning

If you’re a hardy soul who enjoys cold weather fishing from a small boat or just paddling for fun, please be careful. Always wear a life jacket, and make it a condition for anyone who uses your boat.

In some states, it’s actually the law. The intent is to keep boaters safe. In Pennsylvania, for example, the Fish & Boat Commission requires all boaters in canoes, kayaks, and boats less than 16 feet long to wear a life jacket from Nov. 1 through April 30. Historically, about 80 percent of boating deaths claim victims who were not wearing a life jacket. This is especially true in cold water.

Life jackets

In 2013 in Pennsylvania, for example, 15 of 17 boaters who died in boating accidents (88 percent) were not wearing life jackets. And of those 15 deaths, eight occurred in cold water. If you flip a canoe or kayak, or fall out of a boat into cold water (less then 70 degrees F), here’s what happens. When you hit the water, the body’s first reaction is an involuntary gasp.

Without a life jacket, your face will be submerged, and you will inhale cold water. You’ll probably never return to the surface. And even if you do resurface, you’ll be helplessly gasping for air, hyperventilating, and unable to swim.

When a victim sinks in cold deep water, a rescue can quickly become a recovery operation. A life jacket keeps your head above water so you can breathe, and that gives rescuers time to reach you.

So if you boat in cold weather, always wear a life jacket. Be smart and live to boat another day. And in May when water temperatures climb, it’s still a good idea to always wear a life jacket.


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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, or on the Tune-In radio app. Visit his website at or contact him directly at or 2222 Fish Ridge Road, Cameron, WV 26033.



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