Homer Alaska - Opinion

Story last updated at 2:51 PM on Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Surviving Homer's winter takes work

By Mossy Kilcher
For the Homer News


Photo by Michael Armstrong

A moose walks across the Mariner Park slough on Friday afternoon.

It may be March, but the winter cold just seems to linger on and on. Luckily I have a cozy wood stove to keep me warm, a big stack of wood nearby and lots of food stashed in the pantry. It's a far cry from what my fellow creatures are going through tonight. Wish I could invite them all in.

This morning I bundled up in fleece, down and insulated boots and headed out to feed my farm animals. The cows looked grumpy, hunched over, with white frost covering their fur. The horses neighed impatiently, stomping their feet, telling me to hurry up. The chickens sat huddled together, unwilling to move from their perch as I threw them some corn. I chopped ice out of water buckets, dragged stiff water hoses around in the snow and gave everyone extra hay. Water is the most important thing for animals in this cold weather. Cows can't eat enough snow to provide for their water needs, and both cows and horses use up way too much energy just melting it in their bodies. When it's freezing like this nobody seems to like to drink cold water much, even me.

But the wild creatures don't have a nice farm to help them make it through the last days of winter. They are in a constant, frantic race for survival. The moose are on an endless prowl for just about anything crunchy. When desperate enough, they attack my haystack. They would love nothing better than to mow down my raspberry patch but I have sturdy netting and fencing all around it, and that should keep them out for now. I think there is a moose hotline out there. It goes something like this: "Mayday: Saplings at Mossy's! Hurry before they get fenced out!" or "Meet me downtown on Pioneer Avenue at the Mountain Ash Deli!" or "Moose gathering tonight at the fallen birch tree beside East End Road. Watch for speeding drivers!" News travels fast in the moose world when it comes to fine dining (it's called word of moose) — like where to find the best exotic shrubs, which people's yards have no fences or annoying dogs.

I have always wondered: What do moose do for water? I have seen them gulping down mouthfuls of snow while running across the snowy fields. Those hard moose nuggets are probably the animals' way of conserving water, no wasted moisture there. I watch mama moose and her calf laying in the snowdrift peacefully chewing their cud (the remains of my weeping birch). They seem impervious to the cold, with their thick fur and tough skin. They barely look at me, giving off an air of superiority; it's as if they knew I could never survive on just willow twigs and snow. But now that the drifts are deeper and the ice crust thicker, the hungry moose are in a cantankerous mood. One bull charged me the other day, right up onto my deck, when I tried to scare him away from my lilacs.

The wild hares are especially adapted to this winter landscape. The hares around my house are more adapted than others. They have figured out how to climb up in the bird feeders and raid them at night. And how to squeeze through the woven wire around the berry patch. I had not figured on the bunnies being around here so many years now. The local fence suppliers are making a killing off me. I keep adding another three feet here, another whole roll there. All the little spruce I planted? Here I am on hands and knees in the snow, wrapping up the baby trees with old feed sacks in a race against the killer rabbits with their destructive tiny pruning shears for teeth. About half a dozen of them have now discovered the hay barn — a regular bunny heaven — food and shelter all in one. It's really no use trying to get rid of them, they just keep pouring over the borders like cute little terrorists.

Well, at least they provide dinner for the predators. That is nature's way of recycling life so all creatures get their chance. I watched a goshawk swoop down the other day and capture a hare, only to lose it to a pushy raven, who then had it stolen by a greedy eagle. This was after the hawk failed to snag a poor little saw whet owl, which then crashed into my window. The saw whet was OK, though dazed, but the chickadees and nuthatches were in an uproar at its presence and got into an owl scolding contest.

Then the goshawk decided he would make a try for my last remaining winter robin, which I have been fattening up with peanut butter and apples and raisins in hopes of helping him make it through these cold times. The hawk thinks I'm doing this for him, of course. The horned owls also have a taste for hares. They wait for the night to make their moves, hunting stealthily in the dark, terrifying their prey with their loud hoots and blood-curdling screeches.

Coyotes also are good rabbit hunters, but where are they lately? I could use a few around here right now. I miss their nightly yippety-yipping as they run in packs across the moonlit meadows, following the hare tracks. A coyote's kill provides food not only for himself, but also for other creatures, like magpies and eagles and weasels who feed off the remains. There used to be one around my farm, he had a trail that ran from the hills to the seashore, and on winter nights he would wake me up with his song as he trotted by. I always admired his ability to live off the land, surviving on hares and lemmings and dead moose scraps all through the winter, this crafty little wild dog.

The pheasants, too, have it hard. Not native, nevertheless, they manage to find enough handouts to keep them going, or maybe rosehips on the bluffs or wild grass seeds. The goshawk loves to eat a pheasant, if he can catch one. The gos is a swift and deadly flier, the fighter jet of winter hawks, almost as fast as the pheasant that's trying to outmaneuver him. The pheasant dives down into the dense brush, where the goshawk won't risk tearing up his wings. Pheasant 1, Hawk 0. For now.

The squirrel in the roof of the shed has discovered the bird feeders. Though he spends most of the winter curled up in his nest, today I saw him scamper across the driveway on his quest for sunflower seeds. On his return I watched him stop in the snow and gather tufts of fur that the eagle had dropped from the tree above, after eating the stolen hare. Mouth stuffed with fur, the squirrel continued on his trail up the cottonwood tree, leaped across some branches to the next one, went back down that trunk, then along the top of the 12-foot metal gate (don't ask me me how) and back up the side of the shed and into a hole in its roof. I may not like where he has his nest, but you have to love his survival skills.

Let's not forget the voles — building whole mouse towns and 100-foot long tunnels under the snow drifts that zig zag from one seed storage chamber to another. Some voles have found their way into my porch, and under my deck where the bird seeds have dropped through. The voles' own Safeway. These are the lucky voles, but between the owls, and the weasels, it's a risky business to be that far down on the food chain.

The weasel is in constant motion, popping up unexpectedly from under the woodpile, then from behind a stump, then suddenly he's in the chicken house. As long as there are voles to hunt, he does not bother the hens. But who can resist an egg? He can roll that egg through the snow for 50 feet to his store beneath the hay bales. He thinks ahead. Under the hood of my old truck I once found the weasel's secret larder: 10 dried up mice all neatly stacked up like cordwood on the top of the engine. Another time he cleverly stuffed them into the air filter. No wonder the truck would not start.

The ravens cruise by my farm each day at the same time, on the lookout for leftovers, like dribbled horse grain or spilled chicken food. Fresh warm calf poops are a definite delicacy. The ravens call each other to share food news: "Found rabbit foot here in the spruce thicket! Get it before Mr. Eagle arrives!" The magpies overhear. They are lower down in the leftover pecking order, so they wait for that moment when the raven isn't looking and steal a bite. The Steller's Jays, however, are too dignified to stoop to meat scraps, preferring only the most expensive bird seed mix on the market, which is why I try to hide it from them in favor of the little songbirds who are not as pushy.

I know the birds of Alaska survived before me, but I can't help it — I must feed them, especially in this cold. Noisy flocks of redpolls and siskins descend upon the feeders, gobbling up the seeds in no time, while the juncos and sparrows flutter down after the millet I scatter in the brush piles, their favorite hiding places. Birds need lots of cover to survive. To escape from the bloodthirsty shrike and the claws of the hungry sharp-shinned hawk. The "sharpie," like the goshawk, is a swift flier and will perch above the bird feeders for almost an hour waiting for the sparrows to come out of their hiding places so he can snag one in flight. The shrike with his sharp-hooked beak also lurks in the trees, whistling pretty tunes to lure the songbirds in. Though he is actually a songbird himself, and no larger than a robin, he can carry off a song sparrow. The little sparrow who lives here year round has made my woodshed his winter home. Plenty of shelter there, seeds nearby — and the beach not far away, in case he has a hankering for seafood — like the barnacles he pecks off the rocks, and the bugs wiggling under the seaweed.

There are so many winter birds to admire. The crows scouring Homer for open Dumpsters and the pickup trucks filled with groceries (since the beach mussels are mostly now under ice). The busy woodpeckers and nuthatches coming to the suet feeders to stock up on fat, and stashing it by the mouthfuls in the nooks and crannies of the birch trees. The siskins and redpolls, the pine grosbeaks and crossbills — all those cheerful winter residents that seem impervious to the weather and even sing on the coldest winter days.

But the most amazing to me are the chickadees. They never sit still a moment (except when a predator appears and they suddenly freeze so as to be unnoticed). Hanging upside down on a spruce cone, flying to and fro gathering seeds, scolding owls, alerting the other birds to danger, seemingly immune to the cold and to hawks (they can fly circles around them and drive them crazy), you can't help but wonder: how do they do it? Even in the sub-zero arctic, they seem to thrive. At night whole families huddle together in tree cavities to keep warm. They have food stashed everywhere. They could teach us a lot about making it in the far north.

Yes, it's a constant life and death drama out there, all about who makes it and who doesn't, who is the most clever or stealthy, or the swiftest, or thriftiest, or luckiest. They have the know-how and expertise, and though I may try to keep the voles from girdling my trees, or the rabbit from eating my berry bushes, or the moose from stripping my fruit trees, I know I can't really hold it against them. They are the experts of survival from centuries of trial and error, they have evolved amazing strategies for staying alive and they deserve all the respect and help they can get.

And they're all out there in the cold tonight, while I write this sitting here by my cozy fire.

Lifelong Alaskan Mossy Kilcher grew up in Homer on a Kilcher homestead with seven brothers and sisters. For the last 35 years her home has been Seaside Farm, with horses, beef cattle, chickens and a big raspberry patch. She is an avid nature lover, whose passions are birds, writing music, art, making nature movies, writing stories and sharing her farm with world travelers.