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Possumhaw: Deep freeze in the Prairie


Shannon Bardwell



"Winter offers the chance to observe behavior -- birds act differently in the cold, their activities are much more focused. And they're easier to spot and watch, without tree leaves to hide their comings and goings." 


-- Val Cunningham, "Winter is a Great Time to Spy on Birds," Star Tribune (2016) 




The ice princess settled on the Prairie last week. Right off the bat the small pond froze, the one where deer visit, bowing their heads to drink. The goldfish pond froze over as well. Periodically it took a hammer to crack the thick ice to let some air in. After the first day, we covered the pond during the night and cracked ice during the day. 


About two-thirds of the big lake, home to the ducks, froze over. The first day I called the ducks to feed. They swam to the edge of the ice but couldn't get close. Helen tried to lift herself on the ice only to fall back into the water. Hilda flapped her wings to get a running start but also floundered. I walked their feeding tray along the lake edge, looking for a place to get closer. Even so, I had to crack a thin layer of ice and reach out as far as possible without falling in. I held the feeding dish filled with cracked corn, catfish pellets and breadcrumbs while they ate. If worse came to worse, I could throw out some floating catfish pellets to get them through the frigid temperatures. 


The third day I went to feed the ducks, both Hilda and Helen walked gingerly toward me balancing on top of the ice. They walked all the way to our regular feeding place, so I had to retrieve the dish from where I left it near the ice. They almost seemed proud walking on ice. You know duck's feet are made so miraculously well their feet do not freeze. It's a process called "counter-current heat exchange." Pretty amazing, nature is. We could only wish our feet didn't freeze.  


The rabbits' hutches were warmed by blankets and a lamp. The furry creatures were kept warm enough, but the water bottles froze. Hatcher's bottle actually burst, but no water ran out as it was frozen solid. This meant warming bottles, emptying ice and refilling the bottle water multiple times a day. 


The kittens (they are 2-1/2 years old now, but I like to call them kittens) Harry and Wilhelmina begged to go outside even though the temperatures were in the teens. They came in periodically but preferred zooming across the yard and up a tree, frightening poor birds while the birds clung to the feeders. 


Bird feeders needed to be filled often -- sunflower seeds for the cardinals, a stunning bird when sitting in the bleakness of a leafless tree. A bevy of small sparrow-like birds attached themselves to the thistle sock, emptying the entire sock in a single day. 


A couple of newcomer ducks arrived. Our wildlife biologist visitor identified the ducks as Gadwalls. The bird book said the Gadwall has the widest range of any duck and is known to hunters as the "Gray Duck." The Gadwall "is as popular game bird and is abundant in winter in southern marshes."  


Then the ice princess arrived, and the Gadwall couple moved on. 



Shannon Rule Bardwell is a Southern writer living quietly in the Prairie.


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