Of birds and beasts

Bird reports are starting to flock in… starting with Helena Beattie’s call of a couple of weeks ago. Calling from Quyon, Helena told me that she’d observed a shrike at her bird feeder.

She also mentioned that neighbours of hers in the village have cardinals fairly regularly at their feeder.

I welcome birders to contact me with reports of these brilliant red birds. The male is scarlet with a crest and black face mask. Females are more subtle in colouring, being an orange-buff colour with red highlights.

This paper reported a cardinal sighting in Ladysmith in last week’s social notes.

Because the Pontiac lies a bit west of these birds usual range, it is important to track the sightings of cardinals. Birds do expand their territories, and it appears to me that this is gradually what this type of bird is doing.

Interestingly, there are many cardinals in Ottawa. While in the city yesterday, when I alighted from my car in Ottawa South, the very first thing I noticed was the clear, trilling song of a cardinal. There he was, perched on top of a maple tree, singing mightily.

Like anything that’s extremely common, it was very easy to take cardinals for granted while growing up in Toronto, where my family always saw them at our feeders. And in Ottawa, where I lived from 1974-89, I also saw them regularly.

So when I spied one on May 5, 1989, four days after moving to my Steele Line home, I thought it was simply a normal occurrence. Little did I realize that was to be the only sighting I’ve seen here at my farm.

The only cardinals I’ve seen in the region since then are in Aylmer, at a bird feeding station and trail off Pink Road. Again, as I got out of my car, the clear calls of several male cardinals greeted me.

So I welcome your calls about these birds. Call me at 458-2090 and let me know where you are seeing them, whether you are seeing pairs of them, groups of them, or single individuals, as I did that day in May. It would be interesting to track this species.

Yet another call came through from Bristol, just a few days ago, where a reader named Barry reported seeing a flock of 75 Bohemian Waxwings. (Please call again: I’ve mistakenly erased your message!)

And great grey owls are also in the Pontiac: A friend from Calumet Island e-mailed to say she had spotted one at dusk last week, and wondered if conditions in the north are forcing these birds to come south to find food.

Meanwhile, at my feeder there are the usual species of blue jays, mourning doves, evening grosbeaks, juncos, hairy woodpeckers, and chickadees.

There is such an abundance of seed in the wild this year and I feel sure that is why I’m not seeing my other winter species like the redpolls, siskins and finches.

And in the Pontiac fields there are still the large flocks of snow buntings feeding on the seeds of last year’s wildflowers such as St. John’s Wort. It’s amusing to track these birds on the snowy surface of the fields: the birds “march” across the fields like a small army, stopping at plants protruding from the snow. Their tracks are comical in appearance, darting this way and that from one seed source to another.

Soon these birds will migrate north to the tundra regions of the Arctic, where they breed in that regions small “window of opportunity” before returning here next winter.

And so it goes: very soon we’ll be hearing the “chik-chik-kor-eee” call of the redwing blackbird, and flocks of starlings will return, joining the solitary individual that has occasionally visited my feeder in the last month and a half. Soon the flocks of blackbirds, cowbirds and grackles will appear, and then the waves of migrants will return.

But all of this sounds wildly impossible today, doesn’t it, as we peer out into the fields and woods of our snow-bound Pontiac? As I write this column on Tuesday March 13, snow is falling and the prediction is that we’re to receive 10 cm before it’s over, possibly mixed with ice pellets. And the week is supposed to end the same way, with a “copycat” storm on Friday.

Oh well… mon pays, c’est l’hiver, n’est-ce-pas?


On another note, foot and mouth disease has now spread to France. Farms in the United Kingdom continue to be devastated, with entire herds of cattle, pigs and sheep being killed. Marksmen from the British army may be called in to shoot roaming livestock. To make matters worse, sheep can carry the disease for days without showing it’s signature blisters on hoofs and in their mouths.

As a farmer being interviewed today in the Cumbria district of England noted while being interviewed by CBC radio host John Lacharity, the disease’s spread means that the livestock industry in Britain needs studying. The farmer noted that the movement of stock may need to be restricted, and that local abattoirs might need to be reintroduced.

Whatever happens in the future, I’m sure all of us sympathize tremendously with the plight of farming families in the UK.


Katharine Fletcher is a freelance writer based in Quyon, Quebec. Contact her at 458-2090.