I love October in the Midwest. The trees change summer’s emerald dress for autumn’s festive colors; bird dogs become restless in anticipation of finding migrating woodcock; trout and smallmouth are gorging on the last of the year’s insects; and sweaters become a requirement during evening strolls.
Yes, October is the month that I love … then comes November. The leaves have turned brown and litter the ground. The weather becomes a cruel precursor of winter, mixing teasing warm days, icy showers and snow. November delivers us the bad news that the weather will only be getting more uncomfortable, until its cousin March shifts us into a reverse course toward spring.
Some folks escape to more tepid climates, while many more opine the misery of the coming cold and snow. While I certainly enjoy a short vacationing respite, I’ll stick around and brave the weather and enjoy some hunting.
I can’t imagine a winter without snow any more than a summer without singing crickets and sweet corn. So, while you certainly may hear me complain about shoveling snow or numb fingers, what could possibly make hot cocoa taste any better?
Right in the middle of these changes, nature provides us with December. Just as Christmas bestows upon us the promise of something more in our lives, this special month also gives us some assurance that change will come once again, that winter is not permanent.
The winter solstice arrives each year very near Christmas Day, this year having already arrived on Thursday. While this day may go unnoticed by many, there is evidence that it has been celebrated since the Stone Age.
Also known as the hibernal solstice and as midwinter, the event is a natural phenomenon marking the day with the longest night of the year. At first blush, this doesn’t sound good but the seasonal significance is the gradual lengthening of daylight hours and a steady march toward spring’s gobbling turkeys, returning warblers, popping daffodils, and warming waters that trigger fish to spawn.
Some Christmas traditions found their birth during winter solstice observances by pagan Scandinavian and Germanic people of northern Europe. They celebrated a 12-day midwinter holiday called Yule. Ornamented evergreen trees and wreaths decorated homes and a special log was saved to place on the hearth that would hold its flame during the long night.
Today, these adjusted customs have found their way into our homes and help us celebrate Christmas. We sing “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” share gifts and memories beside our decorated pines, and we hang wreaths on our doors to welcome guests.
Does the winter solstice affect wildlife? Yes and no. While the actual day has no effect on animals, the shortening and lengthening of days certainly does. The amount of daylight influences activity levels for both diurnal and nocturnal animals, and can trigger changes in sleep cycles.
More importantly, lengthening days indicate that the sun is progressively climbing higher in relationship with our hemisphere, resulting in a gradual warming and the subsequent change of seasons. That warming triggers plant growth and insect activity, which are both crucial to all wildlife. It is the winter solstice that promises that these changes will once again gift us with a new beginning.
“Live in each season as it passes; breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit, and resign yourself to the influences of each.” — Henry David Thoreau
Along the way
During Christmas, it’s customary to give gifts to those we love and to help those that are in need, a tradition you can carry over to your neighbors that share the local woodlots, lakes and ponds.
As the tree you’re using to decorate your home for the holidays exhausts its usefulness and begins to shed its needles, it becomes time to make a decision of how to properly dispose of the organic remains.
Rather than send it to the landfill, consider these options that help fish and wildlife.
Aquatic habitat structures, also called fish shelters or fish attractors, provide cover, resting and feeding areas for fish. They act as substitutes for natural cover in ponds where these types of areas are lacking.
Winter ice cover provides an excellent opportunity to place your Christmas tree, or groups of trees that have been banded together, in strategic locations. By weighting them to sink and then waiting for a thaw, the trees will provide you with summer’s fishing hot spots.
Landowners can also use their Christmas trees to build brush piles to improve terrestrial wildlife habitat, providing cover for mammals, birds, amphibians and reptiles.
These brush piles make ideal homes and nest sites for many wildlife species. They’re very effective near field borders, as well as undeveloped areas in suburban yards. Larger brush sites are more effective in providing hiding and escape cover, so you may want to volunteer to help your neighbors dispose of their trees.
Mulching or composting is another wise alternative to just throwing your exhausted trees in landfills. Many communities are making it easy for residents to recycle cut Christmas trees by offering convenient drop-off locations and curbside pickup.
Some general rules when disposing your tree include:
• Remove all trimmings, such as tinsel, ornaments and garland.
• Seek permission before placing trees on private land or ponds.
• Check with officials before dropping trees off at parks or lakes.
“Unless we make Christmas an occasion to share our blessings, all the snow in Alaska won’t make it ‘white.'” — Bing Crosby
• Thursday and Friday: Trap and skeet, open to the public, 5 p.m., UCOA, 6943 Marion Township 243, Findlay.
• Jan. 12: “Growing Up WILD” workshop, 9 a.m. to noon, Johnny Appleseed Metro Park District, 2355 Ada Road, Lima. Workshop is free, but preregistration is required. Contact: Beth Theisen at 419-223-1025.
• Jan. 25-26: Ohio Fish and Wildlife Conference. Friday conference topics include: chronic wasting disease; landscape genetics; Virginia rails; habitat restoration; and wildlife technology, like camera surveys, environmental DNA and drones. It will be at Nationwide and Ohio Farm Bureau 4-H Center, 2201 Fred Taylor Drive, Columbus, www.ofwma.com
Merry Christmas and thank you once again for visiting … and for your interest in Ohio’s natural resources. — Jim
Abrams is a retired wildlife officer supervisor for the state Division of Wildlife in Findlay.