For sub-arctic birds, the North Country is Florida

Given the prolonged deep-freeze we’ve been having, it’s hard to believe vacationers are flocking to the North Country for its comparative warmth. When the mercury (or whatever that red stuff is in today’s thermometers) drops down and stays there a while, several arctic and sub-arctic bird species shift farther south to “tropical” climes such as ours.

Gray jay.. Photo: Cephas, creative Commons, some rights reserved

Gray jay.. Photo: Cephas, creative Commons, some rights reserved

The first time I saw a gray jay, I thought a blue jay must’ve gone through the wash with a little bleach. Dark gray above with a lighter belly, the bird also known as the camp-robber, Canada jay or whiskey-jack is about the size of a blue jay, but a little more puffy-looking and lacking a head crest. They’re cute as a button, and will eat from your hand if you let them.

Be careful; gray jays are in the crow family, a clever and highly curious clan. They’ll graduate from eating crumbs out of hand to nicking your sandwich or even flying into the kitchen if the door’s open a bit too long (happened to me). Still, they’re adorable, and I love seeing them.

Red crossbills aren’t as bold, and since you won’t find them hanging around your compost pile or kitchen door, you’re less likely to encounter them. Native to boreal spruce-fir forests, they specialize in extracting seeds from cones. I’ve seen them on Adirondack roadsides, presumably picking up grit, and once stopped to examine a road-killed specimen.

Red Crossbill male. Photo: Eugene Beckes, creative Commons, some rights reserved

Red Crossbill male. Photo: Eugene Beckes, creative Commons, some rights reserved

If you’re lucky enough to spot a crossbill, you might think it’s in need of an orthodontist. As their name implies, crossbills have a lower beak, or mandible, that crosses to either the right or left (in equal numbers, I’m told) of the upper one. This helps them pry apart the scales of cones to winkle out the seeds that lie between the scales.

In sub-zero conditions it seems like nothing’s more uncomfortable than cold feet. Two birds of prey that visit us in winter, the snowy owl and the rough-legged hawk, have found a solution. In addition to vacationing here in the “warm” south, their other secret to surviving winter is to sprout feathers on their toes.

Rough-legged hawk. Photo: Eugene Beckes, creative Commons, some rights reserved

Rough-legged hawk. Photo: Eugene Beckes, creative Commons, some rights reserved

As you drive along northern NY State’s roads this winter you may notice—in between whiteouts—hawks perched here and there on utility poles or in trees, hunting rodents and rabbits. If you’re lucky you may get to see one hovering or even swooping down on prey. A high percentage of these are rough-legged hawks. (Most red-tail hawks, our most abundant hawk species, go farther south during winter.)

One of the largest of hawks, rough-leggeds have wingspans of 50 to 60 inches, and are one of only two hawk species to have home-grown down boots. Their plumage pattern varies a lot, but generally their wings are white underneath with some dark areas close to the body and possibly dark wingtips. They have one or two dark bands near the tip of an otherwise white tail.

Snowy Owl. Photo: Larry Master

Snowy Owl. Photo: Larry Master

One of the most picturesque and recognizable winter visitors is the snowy owl. The male is nearly pure white, while the larger female has some brown scalloping on her chest. Like most owls, snowies have feathers right to the ends of their toes. On their native arctic tundra, snowy owls feed mostly on lemmings and small rodents. But because they’re the heaviest owl species, they can take down some good-size prey, including ducks, geese, muskrats and raccoons.

Maybe we could learn some tricks from these hardy vacationers. Wear down-filled clothing, including boots. Definitely go south for the winter. Mooching food from neighbors is optional.

Paul Hetzler is a horticulture and natural resources educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension of St. Lawrence County.

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2 Comments on “For sub-arctic birds, the North Country is Florida”

  1. Pete Klein says:

    Thanks for the interesting story.
    Although we have fairly cold winters and like to say we live in the North Country, we forget we are south of the 45th parallel and are thus closer to the Equator than we are to the North Pole.

  2. Michael Greer says:

    Yeah, the St Lawrence is the Riviera of Canada.

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