Notes from Nature: Life or Death

Columns | R S Hughes | February 2011

After a brief respite of a few spring-like days, winter is back. But living in the city, perhaps we don’t always feel the full force of the seasons. For many people, snowfall in Vienna means little more than pulling on stout boots and de-icing cars in the morning – minor inconveniences at most. Within hours, roads and pavements are generally clear.

In contrast, winter in the wild is often a matter of life or death, and the season may significantly alter bird behaviour. Snow – and even hard frost – can prevent birds from accessing food and water, and many may die through starvation as a result. Should freezing temperatures continue without a thaw for several days in a row, there’s a chance of mass deaths among some species.

Birdfeeders across the city are busy at this time of year as smaller birds, such as great tits, feed non-stop throughout the daylight hours in order to give themselves a fighting chance of making it through the night. And should the weather become too severe, some species may have to up sticks and move on in search of warmer climes. This can lead to sudden and worrying declines in numbers in some areas.

Some birds become more sociable to improve their chances of survival. Certain well-sheltered sections of the Danube become ghostly-white at night, as hundreds of mute swans gather together on the cold, choppy water to roost. Corvids can be seen in large numbers too; a similarly eerie spectacle as the birds head to their roosts, like iron filings in the late afternoon sky.

Casualties during the winter months are unavoidable. As William Blake put it, "He withers all in silence, and in his hand, Unclothes the earth, and freezes up frail life." But there are a few things we can do to help loosen winter’s grip. See and click on ‘Helping Birds’.

Other articles from this issue