February 15, 2015
The Cornell Ornithology Lab annual Backyard Bird Count took place this weekend, a frigid time with blowing snow and pale light. The thermometer registered five degrees Farenheit, headed down. I watched the local visitors to the feeders and suet cakes chase each other, and scratch in the snow to uncover seeds constantly covered by the blowing snow. I count 15 different species of birds, including the Coopers Hawk that swooped through, and five of the birds banded in the Spring.
It is a marvel how they adapt to such inhospitable weather. I follow individual sparrows to their shelters in the stone wall, and I see the juncos and titmouse head for shelter at the dense base of the border hedge and the brush pile in the corner of the compost heap. The mourning doves perch on low branches under an evergreen bough and huddle together with their backs to the wind. I wonder how well people would fare in adapting to such harsh conditions. We have no feathers to fluff out and create an insulating cover; we have no way to increase our metabolism to generate more heat, and we do not become hypothermic at night to conserve energy. A chickadee can do all of these things,and scientists are still studying how they manage the task of survival.
I note with good cheer each spotting of the banded chickadee and cardinals, the song sparrow and especially the Carolina wren. But I wonder and worry about my banded summer birds – the robins and catbird and cowbird. What are they facing in their distant winter homes? Are they finding food and shelter and safe travel? Is their habitat intact,or are they finding drought and destruction? Will I ever see them again?
The migrating birds drive their life cycle according to ancient ingrained forces by which they survived over hundreds of years. We see the changes in the wider world, and know that these long distance travelers depend on the stability of the cycles of the seasons for food and sustenance. I send the little black eyed junco flock back to the Arctic or Northern Canada well fed and healthy after a winter of eating sunflower seeds and suet. For them, I worry that their nesting places might be destroyed. The junco was a summer bird to me in Anchorage, and I know there are many wooded hillsides falling to housing construction.
It seems small and petty to worry for the fate of these little winged creatures when there is so much misery in the world, but they are the harbingers of our fate. They are Nature’s creatures that spread song, beauty and a thousand uncounted services from pest control to pollination. Their well-being expresses the soul of the living earth.
SO, feed them, count them, enjoy their place in your world.