December is ‘the moon of popping trees’

On a recent cold night I left the warmth of my house in exchange for a brisk walk outdoors. I've always enjoyed the feeling of fresh, crisp winter air in my lungs, the sound of squeaky snow underneath my boots, and the supreme quiet of woodlands ...

On a recent cold night I left the warmth of my house in exchange for a brisk walk outdoors. I’ve always enjoyed the feeling of fresh, crisp winter air in my lungs, the sound of squeaky snow underneath my boots, and the supreme quiet of woodlands in the wintertime. Everything about such moments helps clear my mind.

As I walked and occasionally stopped to rest and listen, I heard the little lake behind my house making noises of its own - its ice sheet groaning and moving. The deep rumbles, sharp cracks, and loud booms sounded something like the muffled reports of discharged firearms. And throughout the surrounding forest were the sounds of popping trees. Indeed, some American Indian cultures making their homes in the northern hemisphere called December “the moon of popping trees”.

Like the expanding ice on the lake, moisture inside of trees expands as well. Hence, the loud pops and sharp cracks that reverberate throughout the forest on cold days and nights. When moisture deep inside trees freezes, it expands causing the wood to crack loud enough to hear from long distances. Physical evidence of this phenomenon can often be observed. “Frost cracks” form along trunks of many trees that have experienced excessive moisture expansion. Though not usually harmful to trees, wood quality is reduced. I’ve seen many a maple and oak tree with long frost-cracks up and down their trunks.

It always amazes me how quickly our seasons come and go. Events leading up to our springs, summers, falls, and winters seem long in coming, but once each one is here, it sometimes seems as though it just happened overnight. 

The calendar may show that winter has just begun and that autumn has just concluded, but here in the Northland it’s been winter for some time now. The animals know it, the plants know it, and we know it. Gone are the leaves of trees, gone are the green of plants, and gone are most of the birds that frequented the feeders.


Even so, despite the passing of the season-of-plenty, winter is a special time. It’s a sleepy period of dormancy and quiet. And where our resident wildlife is concerned, many have become inactive, as some species of wildlife do each winter in underground and comfortable burrows such as ground squirrels like chipmunks, thirteen-lined ground squirrels, and woodchucks.

Remember those chipmunks raiding your birdfeeders nonstop from spring through fall? Well, right now they’re fast asleep in a deep slumber that we call hibernation. And in the event they stir awake, rest assured those sunflower seeds that they worked tirelessly stealing from your feeders will be put to good use. Because next to their subterranean bedrooms are storage rooms full of booty: acorns, hazelnuts, sunflower seeds, and who know what else, all of which will help the chipmunk survive the winter and emerge next spring looking for more goodies.

Other critters pass the winter in torpor, too. Raccoons, skunks, black bears, and woodchucks usually won’t be observed again until the warmth of spring. But thankfully not all creatures have flown the coop or are taking long naps - blue jays, nuthatches, downy and hairy woodpeckers, and the omnipresent chickadee make for enjoyable viewing throughout the long winter.

I especially appreciate the blue jays. Each winter season, some dozen, maybe more - it’s hard to count them all - come to feast on the black-oil sunflower seeds that I pour into the feeders. I used to think that it was the dozen or so gray squirrels that were responsible for depleting my sunflower seed supply, but I now think it’s mostly the blue jays that help to deplete those seeds so quickly.

I like them, though. Their reflective blue is a welcome splash of color in a landscape of gray tones and whites. And their antics make for great entertainment. As a rule, one or two of the jays maintain the top of the totem pole, so to say. A dominant jay will land with a thud on the tray feeder, scattering the other feeding jays, and then stand momentarily with its crest fully erect - a sure sign of supremacy. Then, to further demonstrate its domination, the bird will begin gorging itself on so many seeds as to visibly inflate its throat and crop plumb full, only to fly off and come back for more.

Another year-around species of bird that I am fond of are black-capped chickadees. Always quick, always friendly, I’m happy that such energetic birds help to empty the feeders every day. Others like downy and hairy woodpeckers and white-breasted nuthatches, are busy either chipping away at the suet or flying away with another sunflower seed. And every once in a while a pileated woodpecker or a red-bellied woodpecker comes for a visit, too.

The moon of the popping trees is definitely upon us. For the next few months a cold quiet will envelop the landscape. It’s a good time to unwind, stay warm, and appreciate life and all its joys. But soon the days will become noticeably longer, and, with it, come subtle changes all its own as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

(Klemek is a DNR Wildlife Manager. You can contact him at .)

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