There’s a New Year’s tradition among bird-watchers: The first bird you see on New Year’s Day is your theme bird for the year. Your spirit bird, the bird that sets the tone for your encounters with the world and with others, the bird that guides your heart and your imagination in the coming year.
It’s hardly a serious ornithological exploration, but there are plenty of birders who will wake before dawn anyway, no matter how late they stayed up on New Year’s Eve. They will drive off to some wild place teeming with avian life, all to increase the sunrise odds of seeing a truly amazing first bird. Who wouldn’t love to be matched for a year to the spirit of the snowy owl? What a gift to be guided for 12 months by the soul of a Bohemian waxwing!
I’m not a real birder, and my first bird of the year is always some ordinary creature: a cardinal or a blue jay or a plain-vanilla American robin. I keep hoping for a dark-eyed junco — those adorable puffballs that live in Middle Tennessee only in winter — but small grey ground foragers aren’t as easy to see as the brighter, bigger birds that cling to the feeders surrounding my house. The first feeder “bird” I saw outside my window this year was a grey squirrel. By the time I got up, hours after dawn, he had already chewed a hole in the hard wire mesh of the new feeder some friends gave us for Christmas. For me, apparently, this will be the Year of the Persistent Domestic Rodent.
Winter is not generally a season that inspires a sense of hope. Short grey days are followed by long dark nights, with no intervening sense that time is passing, that progress of any kind is being made. The other seasons are observably different from one day to the next — new flowers blooming in springtime, baby birds fledging in summer, leaves turning new shades of colour all fall — but in winter the world is fast asleep. Silent. Still.
Except it’s not. My own ritual for New Year’s Day is to walk around my neighbourhood, looking for signs of spring. They’re always there, perfectly clear to anyone who’s looking.
Buds have set on the cascading canes of the forsythia bush, on the limbs of the saucer magnolia and the flowering crab apple. On the branches of the crepe myrtle, tight leaf buds are clinging beside the husks of last summer’s berries. Even the towering sugar maple trees in my yard are covered with tiny leaf buds waiting for warmth to wake them. “Nature’s first green is gold,” Robert Frost observed, but strictly speaking, nature’s first green is brown — the tiny brown buds at the ends of the twigs I pass beneath all winter, hardly noticing.
In my grandmother’s garden in Lower Alabama, there used to be a form of Chinese honeysuckle that was known locally as Kiss Me at the Gate. It bloomed in January — a small, inconsequential white flower with a heavenly scent. My mother brought a sprig of it north to our house in Birmingham, where it thrived for decades, but Middle Tennessee seems to be outside its range. Philosophically I’m opposed to cultivating exotic plants outdoors and would never deliberately introduce one into the environment, but emotionally it’s very hard for me to think of a flower as an invasive species if it was growing beside the beloved front porch in my earliest memories. In January, I still miss the flowers.
But one of my neighbours has a large stand of winter jasmine growing next to her driveway. Another exotic, also imported during the late 19th century from China, winter jasmine blooms in January, too, even here. When I checked on New Year’s Day, a few of the buds were already starting to open. It will be weeks yet before the whole row is alight with yellow flowers, but for a person looking for signs of spring on an ashen January day, a single bloom is promise enough.
It would be easy to mistake the bluebirds keeping watch over the nest boxes in my yard as signs of springtime, too, but it’s far too early for Eastern bluebirds to be nesting. What they’re doing instead is protecting their territorial stake on these boxes as prime roosting sites on bitter nights. Instead of shivering on the exposed branches of trees in bad weather, whole families of bluebirds will gather together in the nest boxes, conserving heat.
For the neighbourhood’s pair of great horned owls, nesting season has already begun. The owls started singing to one another in late November, and their courtship song is one of the most recognisable in the world. Sometime during the next few weeks, the female will lay her eggs and will settle in to begin her long wait. The great horned owl is not my bird of the year, but I will be keeping watch with her even so. I am waiting, too.
— New York Times News Service
Margaret Renkl is a contributing opinion writer who covers flora, fauna, politics and culture in the American South.