Years ago I had three Japanese yews growing along the front of my house. They were, in spite of my regular trimming, aesthetically too large for the yard. They did provide, however, excellent cover for birds in the wintertime. From the large window in my living room, I could see into the backside of one of the shrubs, and there were almost always birds within.  Sometimes it was a pair of cardinals. Other times it would be up to a half dozen English sparrows. Usually the birds would just hunker down and sit. Less often they would flit from branch to branch inside the shrub. 

I took out those yews. Their removal reminds me of how little I know about the needs and wants of nature. Besides visually dominating the view of my house, I also took them out because they were not indigenous to Wisconsin. I thought replacing them with native species would be good for wildlife, but, in retrospect, I’m guessing the birds would disagree. None of the birds in the neighborhood ate the yew berries, but the cardinals’ and sparrows’ use for the yews was not as a food source. I replaced the exotics with ground cover and two smaller deciduous shrubs. As I write this blog, a house finch (or maybe it’s a purple finch) has alighted atop one of the shrubs. It serves as a temporary resting spot, but with only bare branches in the winter, it provides no shelter. When the bird takes off, I am pretty sure it will disappear into the protection of the Colorado spruce across the street.  

Today I was walking Jack and saw over a dozen robins eating berries off a small fruit tree. I don’t recall ever seeing so many robins together in one place before. They must, like bald eagles, congregate near food sources in the wintertime. Some of the birds were in the tree going after hanging fruit. Most were on the ground eating fruit that had fallen. I didn’t even know robins ate fruit, but if they are sticking around all winter, they obviously have to feed on something other than bugs and worms. A quick look through my bird books confirmed that both flocking and eating fruit are common wintertime behaviors for robins. It makes me think there have been other times I’ve seen robins in flocks and just failed to make note of it. Now that it is on my radar, I’ll probably see it more often.

Walking Jack gets me outside in the winter, but it is a lousy way to watch wildlife. It is not so much that my dog disturbs the birds and small mammals in my neighborhood; rather his herky-jerky route with stops at yellow snow and discarded burger wrappers does not necessarily coincide with my preferred resting spots. It is a credit to my observation skills that I noticed the robins at all.

Steven Simpson