Each spring, we laud the return of osprey to Ohio, and watch eagerly as colorful warblers wing their way through central Ohio on the way to their breeding grounds in Canada.
But maybe we also should celebrate the winter stalwarts: those birds that stay here year-round, making their way through the snow and ice, like most of us Ohioans.
You know the birds I mean, because they are the ones we see all the time: northern cardinals, black-capped chickadees, downy woodpeckers and house finches, to name a few. These are the birds I celebrate, and not just for their fortitude but for the beauty they add to our winters.
My most recent walk in the park, at Hogback Ridge Park, 2656 Hogback Road in Sunbury, was a drencher. Unrelenting rain soaked through the tops of my boots and the parts of my jeans not covered by a raincoat. But through it all, I heard the aptly named "cheer-cheer-cheer" call of the cardinal and caught the bright flash of its red wings. Talk about a day-brightener!
Another favorite of mine is the merry chickadee, a common visitor to backyard bird feeders. This little one makes it through the winter feeding on insects and birdseed. A very social bird, it's been known to perch on human hands for a treat of black-oil sunflower seeds. I've never attempted to call one to me -- but maybe someday.
Even as I am enjoying the beauty these and other birds add to a wintry landscape, I know they are working hard to survive harsh conditions. The birds that stay have acquired some adaptive behaviors to ensure they stay warm and fed, and that they find water to drink.
Some birds are able to lower their metabolic rate so as to conserve energy and burn fewer calories. Some grow extra feathers, and others puff out their feathers to create insulating air pockets. The chickadees (did I mention that they are social?) will roost with other birds in tree cavities or nest boxes to stay warm.
Food supplies are not plentiful in winter, so some birds have "cached" food and can return to their stores in the winter -- if other creatures have not beaten them to it. Birds also can eat dormant insects, if they can find them, and some will eat the berries of winter-hardy species, such as junipers.
People can help by keeping bird feeders filled; the birds know how to find those that are reliably replenished. Interestingly, birds will flock together to find the feeders, but compete with one another for the food!
Dehydration can be lethal for birds, and water sources can be frozen over. Birds adapt by looking for running streams, aerated ponds, and -- wonder of wonders -- heated backyard birdbaths.
I want to mention one other year-round bird that I love for the way it heralds in the seasons. The American goldfinch changes color, from bright yellow in late spring and summer to olive drab in late fall and winter. Although the molt takes place gradually, it always seems to me the birds go from drab to golden overnight. Watch for the transformation in April and you will know spring has arrived. You can see the monthly transformation here: tinyurl.com/thisweekgoldfinch.
While I may be thinking spring, I know it is still winter for another month-plus.
During that time, I'll continue my walks in the park and I'll watch the cardinals, finches and other resident birds that I admire so. They persevere, spreading color and cheer that brightens even the dullest winter day.
Sue Hagan is marketing and communications manager for Preservation Parks of Delaware County.