Outdoor Adventures: The tenacity of birds
In the time just after daybreak, the birds are beginning to sing; shrill calls echo like notes on a melody nearly forgotten. There are not many birds singing yet, nothing like later when true spring comes. But a few. I can hear in the clear, cold air of post-dawn light: fragile calls of tiny birds that reach into the winter sky like keen beams of light, like stars that can sing. In the haze of a cloudy day I cannot see the birds but I can hear them trill and sing, tentatively, as if the birds were reaching into memory for a song half-forgotten, a song familiar but fragmented yet, as we do when we hear the notes of a song we have not heard for ages.
Then they come to the feeders in a flurry of movement; of rapid wings perfectly created for flight, flashing in the early light of a winter day. The first birds of the day are small: chickadees, juncos, finches, red polls. They are drab of color; there is little adornment save for the rosy smudge on the breast of the red polls, like a thumb print of a finger painter. Umber brown feather etched with buff accents, chest lighter shades of tan and gray. The small birds land in the tree next to the house and unless they move, they are difficult to see as if they become, in silence and in lack of movement, part of the tree.
But they do not sit long; the night has been dark and chill, and they need food. Their small furnaces cry for fuel to drive beating heart and lung and muscle. So they come to the feeders, the small birds of the dawn, come like wisps of light to land in the bush next to the house, then to the feed.
We watch from inside, warm and safe, coffee at hand, finding more entertainment in birds this winter than in early morning TV. The petite birds seem to lack fear; they come very close to the window, landing at times on the window frame as if to look inside, look at us for their entertainment. On some days we lift the cat to the window sill and let her watch, her back flat, eyes moving, tail twitching like a metronome keeping time to a hunter’s song. She watches, follows the birds with her eyes, makes a small chirring sound; wants out, wants to get at them.
The doves come shortly after, perching on the feeder that we stock with cracked corn. A graceful bird, the morning dove, smooth and long and elegant, but seeming not too bright, sitting there big-eyed and trusting as we move about the kitchen. They are the last to fly when we let the dogs out.
I made a heated water bowl for the birds and it stands near the window. At first, they seemed confused about it, perching on the edge as they looked over to the feeder. But in short time, they figured it out and now many of them wash down their breakfast with a sip of water, dipping down to the water (their small beaks dimple the surface ever so slightly) then tipping back up to swallow; down and up, down and up, until they have had their fill.
There is a rabbit that sometimes takes shelter under the low backyard deck and the dogs find the sweet scent on the morning air. They circle the deck, noses low to the ground, checking the open air gaps where the snow has not banked up too high and where the scent of rabbit wafts like the scent of temptation itself for my dogs. The dogs ignore the birds; the birds, from above, cock an eye to the ground and watch the dogs as if viewing an interesting object at a gallery.
The small, drab birds set the stage as if an opening act. The birds of color and drama come only after an appropriate time. There is a flash of movement in the lilac along the back of the yard, movement and then color. Red birds come, the cardinals.
I never see where they come from; there is simply a blur of color that moves as a breeze in the thin stalk of lilac then pauses, takes form and color and there, in the light of the new morning is a cardinal, as red as this week’s valentine, pulsing life in the somber brown of lilac branch.
There is one that seems larger and more vibrant than the others. (We have had four males and five females in that yard at the same time.) Or perhaps it simply seems that way; perhaps there are several cardinals, large and crimson. No matter; when the one bird stands alone in the upper branches of the lilac, I succumb to the silly and childish impulse and call him out: “Big Red is here.”
Big Red takes it all in, surveys the yard from his perch, seems to consider the day, then flies to a feeder near the lilacs, on the far side of the yard, or, on the rarer days, takes flight across the yard to land in the thicket of branches in the large bush next to the house. His arrival so close, no matter how often we see it, is still striking.
He is a handsome bird, red as a summer rose, bright-eyed and alert, and when he flies close to the window we pause in what we are doing and, like the cat, move only our eyes. Big Red does not tolerate movement or activity, unlike the chickadees and finches that seem nonplussed by it.
We stand transfixed as the red bird hops to a feeder, takes a moment as if deciding what particular seed is looking good, stands there as I might at a buffet table, then dips his head, picks up a seed and flies off to eat it. On a good day, Big Red and his subordinate birds will all come close, the red of the others not quite as resplendent as the vivid red on the big bird, the russet of the females more a tawny shade closer to brown rather than crimson of the males.
When the cardinals leave the yard it is nearly always to the north, between our garage and our neighbor’s, as if they have a route to follow and a timetable to keep. When they leave the yard, the color is subdued once again; the small birds in their earthy colors remain.
Two times in the past week Sally has been at the window when a blur of feather and talon flashed through the yard: Hawk! It is too fast to determine what type it is; all that is clear is that it is a hawk. The birds freeze to immobility, hunker down in the cover of tree and branch, still as statues in the cold of winter.
The hawk is gone in an instant, but the birds hold still longer. Finally one, then another, then all of them come back to life, slowly and tentatively, as if waking from a nightmare into the uneasy middle ground when one does not make a firm grasp on what is reality and what was dream.
Life goes on; the small birds at the feeder, the hawk on the hunt. Inside, we watch from the warmth of home, the cat pads up on soft feet and yowls at us to lift her to the sill so that she may watch the birds of winter, the small joys of life so close at hand. We may comment on some days when it is below zero and when we do we look outside at the birds at the feeder, so tiny, so much alive, so tenacious in the face of the cold.
And when we open the door to let the dogs out, if we pause just a moment, in that moment we can sometimes hear the sound of the small birds singing in the cold morning and know in that song that the cold of winter will not last forever.
An assortment of outdoor products is available at Mel’s Trading Post in downtown Rhinelander; call (715) 362-5800. To comment on this story, visit StarJournalNOW.com.