When I search for comfort in the face of so many 21st-century dangers — to democracy in the age of fake news, to the natural world in the age of climate change — I don’t normally think of winter as offering much in the way of consolation.
Many of the most interesting creatures have gone to ground now. The cheery chipmunks are asleep in their tunnels beneath my house [in Nashville, Tennessee, US]. The queen bumblebees have made themselves a little sleeping chamber deep in the soil of my garden. Somewhere nearby, the resident rat snake is also sleeping underground, and, at the park, the snapping turtles and bullfrogs have settled themselves into the mud at the bottom of the lake.
All the loveliest insects are gone now, too. The honeybees are huddled up in their hives, vibrating their wings to keep warm and feeding on the honey they’ve stored for just this reason. The monarch butterflies have long since migrated to their Mexican wintering grounds. My flower beds are nothing but a jumble of dried stems and matted clumps, a collection of dead vegetation I’ve left undisturbed for my tiniest neighbours to shelter in. But even remembering, I take no comfort from my garden anymore.
I miss the singing most of all. During winter we still have songbirds in Middle Tennessee, some of them yearlong residents and some of them visitors passing time until they can return to their nesting grounds to the north. But songbirds rarely sing in winter.
Yes, the fussy chickadees still call out to defend their claim on the feeders in my yard. And the Carolina wrens that nest every summer in the hanging ferns under the eaves will sometimes stand on a fence post and chirrup their own irritation into the grey sky. But it’s not the same as waking into a morning full of bird song. A walk in the woods is an exercise in near silence now, the only sounds my own lumbering footfall and the huff of my breath on an uphill path.
Winter can be the best time of year for backyard birdwatching. The mockingbirds are finally interested in the suet balls they disdained all summer, and the gorgeous blue jays, their bright colours even bluer against the sepia backdrop of winter, carry away the unshelled nuts I set along the deck rail for squirrels. The tiny dark-eyed juncos that spent all summer in the Far North are back now, hopping around in the leaf litter, picking up the safflower seeds the tufted titmice push out of the feeder in their search for the sunflower seeds they prefer.
Now the downy woodpeckers, with their striped wings and their tidy red caps, come and go from the peanut feeder, not nearly so cautious in my presence as in the days of summertime plenty. They swoop to their feast with the characteristic undulating flight of their kind. If I ever get around to hanging Christmas garland this year, I will try arrange it in a way that mimics the exact arc of their flight.
On especially cold mornings, when bitter temperatures overnight have frozen all the puddles, every songbird in Middle Tennessee, it seems, comes to my back deck to enjoy the heated birdbath. One morning last week I looked out the window and saw six bluebirds gathered in a ring around the edge of it, dipping their beaks into the bowl over and over again while the air above the heated water puffed into fog in the cold.
In winter the neighbourhood hawk sits still in the bare branches of trees, a perch where she is invisible to me at any other time of year. Now I can see even the claws on her great yellow feet extending beyond the fluffed feathers she has drawn around them. The neighbourhood crows know very well that she is there, and they have a few furious words for her as she waits, calmly surveying them as they swoop around her head, close but not too close.
Despite their legendary intelligence, I have my issues with crows. Opportunistic omnivores, they will poach the young from songbird nests. In the spring and fall migrations, they will even devour the exhausted songbirds themselves. But in winter, the crows become my favourites again. They are perfectly designed for this season, black against a grey sky, a three-dimensional silhouette.
Unlike other birds, crows continue to speak to one another throughout the coldest days. American crows remain together as a family through the seasons, with the parents and the young from several nesting years cooperating to find food and fend off predators. I stand in my yard and watch them grooming one another in the high branches: One crow will nibble at another crow’s head or neck, and the other crow will tilt its face this way and that, presenting the itchy places for attention, one by one.
Sometimes they simply sit in the branches and call out, one to another, deep in conversation, a talk that continues even as they fly toward their roost in the last light of these short days. The crow’s “Caw!” is immediately recognisable to the human ear, but the birds actually have, not even counting the “subsong” sounds they make: clacking and cooing and rattling and clicking.
I don’t know what they are saying, but I like to listen in anyway. It’s a gift to watch them living their intricate lives so visibly now that the trees are bare again. This is their world, though it overlaps with mine, and I have no trouble understanding what they are saying to the red-tailed hawk: “Away! Go away!” It may be their message for me as well.
— New York Times News Service
Margaret Renkl is a contributing opinion writer who covers flora, fauna, politics and culture in the American South.