By Sarah Clachar
Issue 129, March - April 2005
Winter can tax the spirit. It’s not necessarily the cold or the darkness—although those contribute—it’s the apparent lifelessness outside. The endless whites and grays of snow and the leafless trees reveal no hint of relief.
Two years ago, when the cold season extended into April, my children and I felt our New England mettle begin to crumble. Sleds had lost their appeal; all we wanted was for the ice to melt into lush lawns for games of shoeless tag. My daughter began to believe that some callous weather-maker had skipped summer and gone on to the next winter.
But then we were saved by the chickadees.
We had affixed a bird feeder to our living-room window and hung some suet on the nearby, bare lilac bush. One morning, as my kids snuggled with me near the window, rubbing their sleepy eyes, trying to erase the disappointing image of more snow, a chickadee alighted on the feeder. Unlike some of the other birds that came by, the chickadee seemed as curious about us as we were about him. Moving from branch to branch, this black-capped inspector sought an optimal vantage point from which to engage us. Then, ever the intrepid scientist, he fluffed his feathers, cocked his head, fixed one tiny, round, dark eye on us, and announced to the avian world his latest discovery.
My daughter’s pout somersaulted into a giggle as she mimicked the bird’s actions by tilting her own head. My son, about to stalk some invisible villain with his play sword, grew quiet and spoke softly so as not to disturb the “baby bird.” After a few mouthfuls of sunflower seeds and several more minutes of mutual observation, our chickadee left. But the day was no longer so dreary. Our little visitor had alerted us to the not-so-hidden life among the snowdrifts.
Checking the bird feeder became a regular form of entertainment, even excitement, in our house. My three-year-old son would spend minutes (a long time for his attention span) poring over a laminated bird-identification card, exclaiming with each recognition. Occasionally, when I was on the phone, one or the other of my children would interrupt me sternly, telling me to be quiet or I might scare away a bird that had just arrived.
On the kitchen wall we put up an Audubon calendar with brilliant pictures of various birds. When the kids were waiting for a meal, their attention was diverted by the beautiful photos—“Mom, what’s this bird’s name? And this one?”—each name carefully repeated, the syllables savored and announced to the uninitiated. “Hey, Delia,” proclaimed my youngest to
his sister, “did you know this is a northern cardinal?”
The snow lingered, and our rosters of identified visitors grew: dark-eyed juncos, red-breasted nuthatches, tufted titmice, and the occasional squirrel. Offering consistent hospitality became our honorable duty. Many of these new arrivals had traveled countless miles to mate and nest, only to be confronted with the unseasonable cold. The kids took this responsibility seriously. My daughter poured birdseed onto the sill while my son crumbled stale crackers on the ground “to make a sandwich for the squirrel.” When we were negligent, the lady cardinal reminded us with taps on the window and loud chirps. Like many others, she had become a regular customer, and we didn’t want to lose her business.
As winter stretched on, testing the resolve of even the mighty chickadee, we
kept the faith—
and it, in turn, grew exponentially within us. Each birdcall reminded us that there were others out there who needed spring at least as much as we did. As we expanded our bird-watchers’ vision, we discovered nest-building activity under the eaves, in the barn, in the rosebush. Each tiny nursery built of scavenged materials embodied the imminence of spring. The resourcefulness of the birds, their unwavering and instinctive preparations for the thaw, helped us keep going. Whining about chilled fingers was interrupted by “Wow!”
Toward the end of May, spring finally arrived. Life permeated everything outdoors—green, vibrant, humming! That sinking feeling we’d experienced as we watched the snow fall when it was supposed to be melting dissipated. And yet, even though our toes were beginning to wiggle free from their leather constraints, the winged neighbors who supped at our window still took center stage. More flashy visitors arrived from the south—northern orioles, rose-breasted grosbeaks, bright yellow American goldfinches.
One afternoon when I returned home from an errand, my warrior-in-training son greeted me with uncharacteristically gentle tones edged with contained excitement. “Come quickly!” he commanded, grabbing my hand and pulling me toward the barn. Standing on tiptoe on the tractor, we could just barely peer into a carefully molded nest perched on a high shelf and replete with four bright blue eggs. Outside the doorway, the mother robin alternately scolded and pleaded with us to leave her babes alone. After one last tantalizing look, we carefully clambered down. A few weeks of attentive parenting and juicy worms later, the fledglings took flight. They swooped and stumbled past the newly planted fruit trees and finally winged out into the sky.
“You did it!” we cheered the mother and father robin as they herded their family onward. Our excitement at their accomplishment could be explained only by our latent memories of winter’s grueling days.
Yesterday, as the light still clung to the sky, and after mowing the lawn, transplanting seedlings, and playing tag, we found ourselves sprawled in the living room near the bird-feeder window. My son’s head popped up, and he began to chuckle. A diminutive brown-headed sparrow, nibbling on seeds scattered on the sill, craned its neck every few minutes to peer through the window. Before you knew it, a gentle game of peekaboo was in play: head up, duck, head down, pop up. My son hid and emerged on cue. Evening came and the day closed as a game revived from toddlerhood dissolved the space, the window, and the distance between species. We giggled, and the sparrow continued to feast.
As we had learned from those first brave chickadees, the cardinal, the robin family, and now the sparrow, communion with another life can change your perspective on the world. Despite a few incidental differences, we were all alive and reveling in it. And that warm spring night, we were all glad to have survived the winter—in body and spirit.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Bull, John, and John Farrand Jr. National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Birds. Alfred A. Knopf, 1994.
Hickman, Pamela. Bird Wise. Kids Can Press, Ltd., for the Federation of Ontario Naturalists, 1988. For kids ages 7–12.
The Pocket Naturalist series by Waterford Press (www.waterfordpress.com).
www.audubon.org/educate—This section of the National Audubon Society website features specific information about birds for kids.
www.birds.cornell.edu—Project FeederWatch draws on backyard birders to track bird species in winter.
www.nwf.org/backyardwildlifehabitat—The National Wildlife Federation provides resources for making backyards more hospitable to wildlife.
Sarah Clachar lives in New Hampshire with her two children, ages 5 and 8.