Chris Smith: Feeding Critters — Where's the Love?

Editor's note: This article was published in Grand Traverse Scene magazine's Winter 2019 issue. Pick up a free copy at area hotels, visitor's centers, chambers of commerce or at the Record-Eagle building on Front Street. Click here to read GT Scene in its entirety online.

To date, I have personally saved 9,782 chickadees and nuthatches, 421 woodpeckers, 54 squirrels, two lonely opossums, and an entire herd of deer from total annihilation. This thought proudly occurred to me one recent frigid morning as I filled the bird feeder — again — on our deck. A strange thought indeed given that a month earlier, I enjoyed shooting a few mallards during duck season. I know, it’s complicated.

We love our critters, and often use words such as “my” and “our” when referring to them. They’re fascinating, and their “tameness” allows for constant viewing through a slider window or while grilling steaks during a chilly January evening. Sipping a cup of morning joe as downy woodpeckers pick away at a frozen maple trunk for a few hard-earned tidbits, we marvel at the tenacity of Mother Nature’s animals. They’re probably closer to going toes-up on an hour-by-hour basis than we realize, just trying to scratch out a living from what autumn’s leftovers haven’t been eaten or frozen.

My education was in wildlife biology, so I understand just how unforgiving a northern winter is to the local birds and fur-bearing animals. The drawn-out effects of starvation or freezing to death are ugly, like on those brutally cold days of January and February, where pickings in the wild have to be slim to none. So we feed them, then accept our scolding by impatient chickadees waiting on a limb a few feet away, as if to say, “What took you so long?”

Where’s the love?

Pesky squirrels monopolize things for a while, but they also have to eat. We’ve fed one fox squirrel for enough years that he’s earned the name Garfield given his color and the fact that he’s about as fat as that comic-strip feline. Garfield has an attitude, too. During a recent refilling session, he let me get uncomfortably close. So to create a little breathing room, I lunged to scare him. Not even a flinch, but he did take two steps toward me, slowly, the varmint way of saying, ‘You really want to ride this train?” Nothing to do then but walk inside (OK, I sort of trotted, nervously looking over my shoulder).

The craziest concept is how so many survive without our help. Before putting the feeder out for the winter, watch a redpoll or goldfinch nervously flit from branch to branch looking for anything it can ingest. Then watch the same bird mere seconds after you’ve filled the feeder; it’s like bringing a single slice of pizza to a room full of eighth-grade boys. It would have taken that bird a week to eat in the wild what I just saw him inhale through his little cake-hole in a couple of minutes.

What about the overgrown deer herd that encroaches on our backyards with each passing sub-zero night? While I enjoy hunting them, it’s equally rewarding to observe their movements throughout a long winter, knowing the leftover squash and pumpkins in my garden might help at least a few make it to the spring. We even put out a trail camera, making the experience more intimate.

Ruffed grouse and fox, ‘coons and ‘possums, deer and songbirds … it’s like a free-for-all around here. (And not once have they helped pay for food!) The biggest irony in all of this is that the most gung-ho hunters — me included — often have the largest soft spots for these animals. Maybe it’s because we’ve spent so much time learning about them in order to take a few in the autumn pursuit that we’ve developed a bond — a profound respect — for their simple ability to survive. And this affection carries over to non-game species, so we don’t mind giving them a little leg-up during an inevitably harsh northern winter.

Drifting off to sleep with another hunting season over my shoulder, instead of wondering which blind to hunt in the morning, I’m hoping I have enough sunflower seeds so the critters don’t get mad. Like I said — it’s complicated.