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December--rabbit

By Charles W. Schwartz

It’s December in A Sand County Almanac, and Aldo Leopold is musing on a few subjects. He begins by discussing how he is curious about learning about an animal’s home range through its actions.

“A sudden yip-yip-yip gives us notice that a rabbit,” he writes, “flushed from his bed in the grass, is headed elsewhere in a hurry. He makes a bee-line for a woodpile a quarter-mile distant, where he ducks between two corded stacks, a safe gunshot ahead of his pursuer.”

“This little episode tells me,” he writes a little later, “that this rabbit is familiar with all of the ground between his bed in the meadow and his blitz-cellar under the woodpile. How else the bee-line? The rabbit’s home range is at least a quarter mile in extent.

“The chickadees that visit our feeding station are trapped and banded each winter,” he continues, then writes, “By noticing the furthest points from my feeder at which banded chickadees are seen, we have learned that the home range of our flock is half a mile across in winter, but that included only areas protected from wind.

“In summer, when the flock has dispersed for nesting, banded birds are seen at greater distances . . .”

Leopold then moves on to deer, noting the fresh tracks of three deer he noticed in the previous day’s snow, which he follows backward to discover a cluster of three beds, clear of snow, in the big willow thick on the sandbar. He then follows the tracks forward.

“My picture of the night’s routine in complete. The over-all distance from bed to breakfast is a mile.”

Grouse, he discovers, for the duration of a soft snow (which would show tell-tale tracks), cover their home range a-wing and not afoot, and range was half a mile across.

“Science knows little about home range,” he writes, but concludes, “Every farm is a textbook on animal ecology; woodsmanship is the translation of the book.”

December--whitepine

White Pine

Next Leopold turns to pines, one of his favorite trees.

“The pine’s new year begins in May,” he writes when the terminal bud become ‘the candle’. Whoever coined that name for the new growth had subtlety in his soul. ‘The candle’ sounds like a platitudinous reference to obvious facts: the hew shoot is waxy, upright, brittle. But he who lives with pines knows that the candle has a deeper meaning, for at its tip burns the eternal flame that light a path into the future.”

If by June 30th of that year, the pine’s completed candle has developed a terminal cluster of ten or twelve buds, it means that it as stored away enough sun and rain for a two- to three-foot thrust skyward the following spring. Four to six buds mean a shorter spurt of growth.

Hard years can be seen as shorter spaces between successive whorls of branches.

Leopold claims that much can be divined from pines, “in March, when the deer frequently browse white pines, the height of the browsing tells me how hungry they are.”

A full deer, for example, will nip at branches no more than four feet from the ground while a really hungry deer will stand on its hind legs to crop at the branches as high as eight feet above the ground.

By May, Leopold says that when he finds wilted candles lying in the grass, he knows that a bird has alighted on it and broken it off.

“It is easy to infer what has happened,” he writes, “but in a decade of watching I have never once seen a bird break a candle. It is an object lesson: one need not doubt the unseen.”

In June, some candles wilt and turn brown before dying.

“A pine weevil has bored into the terminal bud cluster and deposited eggs;” he explains, “the grubs, when hatched, bore down along the pith and kill the shoot.”

Leopold also notes that only pines in full sunlight are bitten by weevils; those in the shade remain unscathed.

In October, bucks are beginning to rub their antlers against the trees, rubbing the bark from the trees as they rub the velvet from their antlers.

“The three species of pine native to Wisconsin (white, red, and jack) differ radically in their opinions about marriageable age,” he writes.

The jack pine sometimes blooms and bears cones a year or two after leaving Leopold’s nursery.

“My 13-year-old reds first bloomed this year,” he writes, “but my whites have not yet bloomed; they adhere closely to the Anglo-Saxon doctrine of free, white and twenty-one.”

Leopold remarks that each year in midsummer, the red squirrels tear up the jackpine cones for seeds, “under each tree the remains of their annual feast lie in piles and heaps.”

“Pines, like people,” he writes, “are choosy about their associates and do not succeed in suppressing their likes and dislikes. Thus there is an affinity between white pines and dewberries, between red pines and flowering spurge, between jackpines and sweet fern.”

Each species of pine also has its own constitution, he says. “which prescribes a term of office for needles appropriate to its way of life. Thus the white pine retains its needles for a year and a half; the red and jackpines for two years and a half. Incoming needles take office in June, and outgoing needles write farewell addresses in October.”

December--chickadee

banded chickadee by Charles W. Schwartz

“65290” is the final segment in this chapter.

“To band a bird is to hold a ticket in a great lottery,” Leopold writes. “It is an exercise in objectivity to hold a ticket on the banded sparrow that falleth, or on the banded chickadee that may some day re-renter your trap; and thus prove that he is still alive.”

Leopold says that, “the real thrill lies in the recapture of some bird banded long ago, some bird whose age, adventures, and previous condition of appetite are perhaps better known to you than to bird himself.

“Thus in our family, the question whether chickadee 65290 would survive for still another winter was, for five years, a sporting question of the first magnitude.”

65290 was one of seven chickadees constituting what Leopold calls the ‘class of 1937’.

“By the second winter our recaptures showed that the class of 7 had shrunk to 3, and by the third winter to 2. By the fifth winter 65290 was the sole survivor of his generation.”

“During his sixth winter 65290 failed to reappear, and the verdict of ‘missing in action’ is now confirmed by his absence during four subsequent trappings.

“At that, of 97 chicks banded during the decade,” Leopold concludes, “65290 was the only one contriving to survive for five winters.”

“I know so little about birds,” Leopold continues later, “that I can only speculate on why 65290 survived his fellows. Was he more clever in dodging his enemies? What enemies? A chickadee is almost too small to have any.”

Musing on that, Leopold notes, “The sparrow hawk, the screech owl, the shrike, and especially the midget saw-whet owl might find it worth while to kill a chickadee, but I’ve only once found evidence of actual murder: a screech owl pellet containing one my bands.”

“It seems likely,” he continues, “that weather is the only killer so devoid of both humor and dimension as to kill a chickadee. I suspect that in the chickadee Sunday School two mortal sins are taught: thou shalt not venture into windy places in winter, thou shalt not get wet before a blizzard.”

Many birds, not just chickadees seem leery of the wind, for as Leopold notes, “Wind from behind blows cold and wet under the feathers, which are his portable roof and air conditioner. Nuthatches, juncos, tree sparrows and woodpeckers likewise fear winds from behind, but their heating plants and hence their wind tolerance are larger in the order named.”

Leopold ends the chapter with what he considers the third commandment: “thou shalt investigate every loud noise.”

Why? Because falling trees expose the chickadee delicacy: ant eggs.

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