Nature Notes: First Not Always Best

Big weather events that occur in March, April, May, and June are the worst for birds
Fortunately for chipmunks, the fall of 2016 was a record one for acorns, allowing them to cache plenty of food for winter. Jean Held

As I write this, a big storm is on the way, maybe the biggest since the 1888 blizzard that killed more than 400 people in the greater metropolitan-Long Island area. Blizzards, hurricanes, northeasters, tropical cyclones, and record rainfalls are just a few of the “acts of God” that are responsible for culling species, diminishing their numbers. The most famous one was the comet that hit 60 million years ago, wiping out the dinosaurs and many other animal species.

In this hemisphere, and in the temperate United States in particular, big weather events that occur in March, April, May, and June are the worst for birds because they are returning from the south, beginning to set up breeding territories, laying eggs, raising chicks, and teaching them how to fly.

Great horned owls are the first to breed locally, followed by bald eagles, then piping plovers as well as several songbird species, woodpeckers, and killdeers. Ospreys are particularly susceptible to bad weather events, as their nests, at least these days in this area, are on tall poles out in the open. Winds, heavy rains, and extra-seasonal snowstorms can inflict heavy damage on both the nests and the chicks growing up in them. Victoria Bustamante recorded the first local osprey I know of on March 1 flying over the westernmost part of Peconic Bay near Indian Island County Park in Riverhead. She has not seen another since.

Being the first to set up camp has its advantages. “The early bird catches the worm” or, in the osprey’s case, the fish. It’s bad enough that the ospreys, which have made a comeback since the DDT days in the 1960s, have to contend with cormorants, seals, and eagles for their dinner; unkindly storms can inflict heavy losses.

Passenger pigeons, which passed from the Earth in the early 1900s, would travel in flocks of thousands on their way back from winter in the south. They died by the hundreds when they finally arrived here after exhausting flights only to find the ground covered with 12 inches of snow. There were very few feeders for birds in those days, and pigeons were likely to be shot at if they came too close to humans. So it was a betting game of sorts. Get here early, set up early, breed early, and do well, or get here early, set up early, and breed early only to be wiped out en masse.

Great blue herons that choose to stay around during the winter run a similar risk. If the coastal waters freeze up, they cannot fish. If they cannot fish they either starve or become so weak that they are easy prey for foxes, eagles, and other predators. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

Most of the birds that breed here are not back yet. But a good number of them, the ones that hop from spot to spot on their way north, are in transit. The mid-March snowstorm has already covered many areas in the south with a foot of snow. It’s not easy to feed in the snow or fly in it for that matter.

One wonders if there are type A birds, frogs, reptiles, and mammals as there are type A people. Go like hell, get there first, and command the best feeding and breeding territories, but, perhaps, pay a price. I can’t help mentioning the University of California Berkeley professor’s findings when he separated mice by intellect and curiosity. The smartest and most curious were the most likely to be taken by predators, the most secretive and least smart stayed safe in their hideaways.

Those turkey vultures that appeared during the past few weeks of warm weather are up against the same odds. If animals that are prone to becoming roadkill are not moving but waiting for the good times of spring, those vultures will find it hard to survive. 

Common crows, on the other hand, are omnivorous and not totally dependent on roadkill. They do fine in almost any kind of weather; however, fish crows, their close cousins, more southern but now fairly well established as breeders on Long Island, continue their migratory ways. You won’t find more than one or two overwintering here.

Then, too, there are the early risers from hibernation. The fabled woodchucks are not one of them. But our little chipmunks can be. If one runs out of its stores of cached food in its underground kitchen and emerges early, it is liable to be predated or go hungry should a big snowstorm comes its way. Fortunately for them, we had a record acorn year, such that their stashes may still be full. Owing to a warm February, the chipmunk at the back of my house has been out regularly since Feb. 6. I just hope that he or she has sense enough to stay under cover until the final snows blow over or melt away. Chipmunks do not have a lot of fat to metabolize, so when acorns are scarce, they are prone to disease and malnutrition. 

Acts of God or acts of man? Which are the toughest in terms of a given species’s chances of survival? They are both tough. The former will crop up here and there until the sun finally goes out, and if we love ourselves and all of the creatures around us, as we should, we need to work diligently to reduce the bad acts of man, and, let me tell you, there are plenty!

Larry Penny can be reached via email at