We tend to forget from one year to the next just how sudden is the transition from summer greens and fall colors to the somber landscape of autumn and winter. Maples, aspen and birch show us a riot of reds, oranges and golds, but wind, rain and early snow soon put those bright colors under our feet. We can be philosophical about it, but that doesn’t alter the fact that we face a months-long color palette of browns and grays, broken only by the green of an occasional pine, spruce or cedar, against a backdrop of snow.

When this transition arrives, and before the outdoor fun of ice fishing, cross country skiing and snowmobiling are viable options, good cheer is at a premium. That’s true in even a normal year. But as anyone who has not been living under a rock knows, this has been anything but a normal year, with the coronavirus pandemic radically altering our ability to socialize and entertain ourselves. To find cheer, in other words.

But cheer can come from unexpected places. One of the places I find it during this time of seasonal limbo is in the backyard wildlife that is no farther away than the world just beyond my windows. Songbirds, gray and red squirrels, cottontail rabbits, even an occasional treetop-skimming eagle—at least, while the lake is still open—offer a diversion as we accustom ourselves to the bare landscape and await the fun that will come later.

A black-capped chickadee peers at us from a snowy branch.
A black-capped chickadee peers at us from a snowy branch.Photo illustration, Shutterstock, Inc.

Among the most cheering are several songbirds that I begin to notice more now. They’ve been here all along, but have been overshadowed by the abundance and color of summer bird life. They’re like pedestrians that go unnoticed when the sidewalk is crowded, but stand out when it’s nearly deserted.

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In plumage they’re subtle, not gaudy. Each is a member of a different branch on the avian evolutionary tree, but share habits that enable them to endure our harsh Minnesota winters while other songbirds must fly hundreds—even thousands—of miles to climates where they can survive. These cheerful avian residents are the chickadee, the nuthatch and the junco.

The black-capped chickadee is the most animated and visible, with a curiosity and confidence that make it far more tolerant of human contact than most other birds. It is small—smaller than our sparrows—and easily the most vocal of these three, eager to announce its presence with its trademark “chick-a-dee-dee-dee-dee” greeting. Besides a winter diet that relies heavily on insect eggs and larvae found in crevices of tree bark and other nooks and crannies, the chickadee is an eager and regular diner at backyard bird feeders. It is a chickadee ritual to alight on a feeder, pluck a sunflower seed from it and return to a nearby branch, there to work diligently to open the tough shell for the nutrient-packed nutmeat inside.

A nuthatch perches on an old tree branch on a cold winter day.
A nuthatch perches on an old tree branch on a cold winter day.Photo illustration, Shutterstock, Inc.

Our black-capped chickadee has a northern cousin, the boreal chickadee; boreal meaning of the high latitude forests, a bird unlikely to show up at our feeders. It is typically found in the dense spruce forests of Canada and northern border regions of the U.S. It is the shy cousin to the black-capped chickadee’s outgoing, on-stage presence, preferring interior conifer branches where it is easily overlooked.

The nuthatch is actually two subspecies, the larger—sparrow-size—white-breasted nuthatch, and the slightly smaller red-breasted nuthatch. Both share the unusual feeding habit of working their way down a tree trunk—head-first—in their quest to find slumbering insects, larvae, or eggs. The white-breasted nuthatch is said to be the more likely of the two to show up at your bird feeder, taking suet or seeds to supplement their natural forage.

Red-breasted nuthatches are more seed-dependent than their larger relative, and are generally the more northerly nesting of the two, tending to show up at points farther south only when the crop of conifer seeds is deficient. Both birds are plumed blue-gray on their upper parts, with their breast feathers matching their respective names, white on the larger bird and a rusty red on its smaller relative. The vocals of both birds are similar, described as a nasal-sounding “yank, yank,” or “amp, amp.”

A dark-eyed junco perches on a stump and watches as a light snow falls.
A dark-eyed junco perches on a stump and watches as a light snow falls.Photo illustration, Shutterstock, Inc.

Even before the fall migration of the warblers, the robins, orioles and others, slate-colored juncos have appeared, often seen scratching in the leaves and grass for seeds and insects. This ground feeding habit persists in winter, when juncos pick seeds from below backyard feeders that have fallen to the ground as other birds feed above.

The junco is sparrow-like in shape, but smaller, with slate-gray upper feathers—thus the “slate-colored”—and whitish-gray underparts. It was once thought that there were several species across the United States, with such plumage variations as black heads, rusty flanks or white wings. But since they all interbreed where their ranges overlap, today’s bird experts have concluded they are one species, and have decided on the name dark-eyed junco as a compromise. Most that we see in the Midwest are of slate-colored plumage, so we can be excused for being old-fashioned and calling them that.

By any name, these pre-winter visitors help keep our spirits up as we accustom ourselves to the reality of a long winter ahead, and await the pastimes that make it more tolerable.

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