Signs of Life in the Dead of Winter

By Margo D. Beller


It's February, and that means snow lies heavy throughout New Jersey. At Scherman Hoffman’s Field Loop Extension trail, it covers the path and the roots of the grasses like a thick blanket. (The picture below is of another part of Scherman Hoffman, taken a few years ago.)

Scherman snow field

It's too early to expect the three-petaled flowers of April-blooming White Trillium, much less the later May-Apple, Jack-In-The-Pulpit or the Bunchberry.

No, for now about the best we can expect is the skunk cabbage (pictured below). This is the perennial leafy plant you see along stream banks and in boggy areas of the woods. It is the first plant to start growing, in March, helped in large part by its unusual internal chemistry that heats the ground around it and melts the snow.

Now you don't see it, now you do - in droves.

It's a good plant for holding soil that would otherwise erode because of the water flow, and it has even become a popular ornamental garden plant despite the odor that gives it its name. The plant is poisonous to mammals, including us, so planting it in gardens near other plants you want to protect is helpful. Its tiny flowers attracts bees, butterflies and other beneficial insects.

The cabbage is a welcome sight when you are tired of snow and white and desperate to see anything growing. It signals we got through another winter.

There are other signs in this dead season that life is waiting to burst upon the scene. 

My houseplants have started to flower because of the slowly lengthening days. Daffodils and other early-blooming plants I planted in the garden had poked their noses above the ground during the unusual – for that time of year – warmth of December and January. Then came the blizzard at the end of January, putting the plants under several feet of snow. skunk

The blanket slowly melted over the next few days as above-normal temperatures returned; then came the heavy rain that dumped more than an inch of water and washed most of the rest of the snow away. When my plants reappeared, they seemed to be in a state of suspended animation. But these, too, are perennials and so will come back with the lengthening days and the warming temperatures.

Meanwhile, I've noticed the birds are in a state of anticipation. In my yard I’ve heard cardinal, titmouse, white-breasted nuthatch and house finch singing their spring territorial songs. At Scherman Hoffman, sanctuary director Mike Anderson recently reported hearing a singing hermit thrush. “I’ve never heard them sing here in winter,” he said of the one type of thrush – aside from its cousins the robin and mockingbird – that doesn’t migrate south for the winter from New Jersey.

At my feeders, and at Scherman Hoffman's too, the usually skittish cardinals have been muscling aside the smaller, more numerous house sparrows, juncos and house finches to get at the sunflower seed they need to survive the winter cold.

cardinal (2)One recent dawn, a male cardinal sat on one side of my feeder, a female at the other. My suspicion that this was a mated pair was confirmed when a second male flew in and dislodged the female, only to be chased off by the first male.

The birds are singing territorial songs because they are preparing to start their broods. It is only a matter of time before the days are long enough and the temperatures warm enough for them to act.

Some birds are already sitting on eggs. The great horned owl hoots its territorial call in the dead of winter. The barred owls call “Who cooks for YOU? Who cooks for YOU-all?” Both these large birds need more time for their eggs to incubate, which is why the females are already sitting on eggs by February. It's no coincidence that these owlets hatch after squirrels, mice and other rodents have had their broods, providing plenty of food.

So even though there’s still plenty of snow on the ground I see signs this is only temporary. I await the birds and the flowers, including the skunk cabbage.