Long winter is even longer for feathered friends
BY MITCH MODE
Special to the Star Journal
The birds come as a rush of wind, delicate wings aflutter, small bodies in flight. One minute the bush is empty; the next, alive with birds, chattering like a group of friends long apart. Their backs are the color of bark and it looks as if the stems of the bush have come alive. Their bellies are buff colored and on the crown and breast of some a smudge of rose, the color of a spring tulip. The rose colors are faint in the shade, vivid in the sun.
They pause as if to consider the situation at hand, then drop from branch and stem to the feeders. The sack-type feeders take the life and movement of the small birds, take their colors; the color of tree bark and dried weed.
The birds feed ravenously. On the ground a pure white cover of new snow, eighteen inches or more, pushed and given shape and flow by the wind, rising up as if a wave captured in white time. Overhead the sky breaks toward patchy blue. The wind has died after the storm, spent by the effort.
The birds jostle for position on the feeders. They feed with a desperation uncommon on most days, birds driven to eat to survive.
Then the small birds burst into unexpected movement and fury, taking flight as windblown leaves. Two, three, bump the window and the sound is like summer storm bringing hail against the glass panes.
There is a blur of fast-moving shape, too fast to make out then forming and taking definition: A hawk.
The hawk cuts the air like a scythe, an arcing cut, swift and true with a cutting edge that is merciless and honed, the wrath of nature’s god. The hawk banks across the yard in its sweep and lands in the lilac. It perches, tall and upright, a judge on a bench. The birds have scattered; the yard is empty save the hawk. The hawk has missed its strike. It sits, miffed at the turn of events, a batter that has swung and whiffed and now sulks on the pine.
Then the hawk takes wing and is gone.
It is a hard season for the birds. Natural food lies buried; the winter does not end; stored up reserves on the small bodies diminishes each day; survival is not a certainty.
I leave the house and go skiing under warming temperatures and a clearing sky. It is odd to be skiing in mid April and to be doing so on some of the best conditions of the season. Odd or not, I ski; when given snow one must ski in the same manner as when given a lemon one must consider lemonade.
I drive home and pull the truck to the driveway, turn it off, step out, pause. There are feathers on the driveway and feathers on the backyard mud, tufts of down in the puddle of snow melt, all like dandelion seed tossed to the breeze. They are dove feathers. The hawk has struck; the hawk has killed, and the feathers lie, light as air, heavy as doom.
The hawk is nowhere to be seen.The small birds crowd the feeders.
The next morning the birds come after daybreak, again the gust of birds, the flutter of activity, the bark-backed birds on limb and feeder.
Birds drop from branch to ground, folding wings tight to body and giving fall to gravity, spreading wings at the last second and landing on the snow. Feed has fallen from the feeders. The birds pick at it. They are still very hungry.
One bird edges to the side, hops toward fallen seed. It alone of the small birds is fluffed up as if against the chill. The other birds are slim and sleek, the single bird rounded, ball-like. The bird moves tentatively, uncertain of direction. I watch it from the kitchen window, tell Sally, “That one does not look good”.
The bird hops, pauses, seems to eat, hops again. Then sits still in the golden sun of morning sky.
I stand and walk across the kitchen, fill my coffee cup and return, glance out the window.
The bird is dead.
The bird has died in the time I am gone, died in a private act without spectators which is as it should be. It lies on its side on the glistening bier of crystalline snow that catches the morning sun. It will be a warm spring day. It will be a day when optimism returns to the land. It will be a day of revival after the storm of winter that has come in spring. But the bird will not see it.
The next day I find a small bird the color of stone in the corner of the front steps as if blown by the wind into a small drift. The day after, two more.
Do they die from food gone bad? Do they die from the cold? Do they die for simply having worn out after surviving the bitter cold and the long nights and the too-short days? It would be easy, the latter, easy to give up, to simply wear out and give up life to the white shroud of snow come too late and too heavy.
We watch the birds, the flocks that come to the feeders like wind storm comes to the trees and the sky. We watch them as they pulse with life, eyes bright in the light of April sunshine, full of energy and vitality. They come every day, birds of a feather.
But as we watch we remember, remember the swift flight of hawk, remember the slow-coming death of the bird on snow, remember how perilous life can be. We know that winter is the mightiest raptor of all, sweeping like a scimitar, cutting without regard, without mercy, without pause, silent wings and razor talons over fresh fallen snow under April skies in this longest of winters. An assortment of outdoor products is available at Mel’s Trading Post, downtown Rhinelander. Call 715-362-5800.