For the Birds Radio Program: November

Original Air Date: Nov. 6, 2003

November can usually be dark and depressing, but this year Laura feels much more cheerful than normal.

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November usually seems a depressing month. Days have been getting shorter since June, but we still get a shock when it suddenly grows dark in the afternoon after Daylight Savings Time ends. November brings Lake Superior squalls and gale conditions like those that brought down the Edmund Fitzgerald, and long stretches of days when the sun stays hidden behind dark clouds. Virtually every warbler has abandoned us, along with the wrens, thrushes, and other birds that make northland springs and summers so tuneful. We’ve also lost the tanagers, orioles, flowers and leaves that made the warmer seasons so colorful.

But this year, despite the cold and cloudy weather, I’ve not been depressed at all. I think it’s because my backyard birds have been both plentiful and varied. A good assortment of sparrows are still coming every day—half a dozen Fox Sparrows, a couple of White-throats and Tree Sparrows, and bazillions of juncos. On the ground with them in the back of my yard are eight Mourning Doves—more than I’ve ever had in fall before, maybe hiding out so they don’t have to cross the state line into Wisconsin, where they are now fair game. Every day a group of Goldfinches shows up, and suddenly a bunch of Pine Siskins have joined them. Pine Siskins are dully colored, like tiny sparrows, and they aren’t exactly musical, but something about their zippy tune and twittery exuberance makes me happy just to hear them.

A pair of cardinals are here occasionally, and even though cardinals have been appearing in my yard on and off for three years now, every time I see them I still get a thrill. It’s not just that they’re red, and not just that they have a crest. The shade of red is important—if you look closely, it’s toward the bluish-purplish end of the red spectrum, making it a cooler color, more in keeping with winter, than the red of a tanager, at the hotter, more tropical orangy end of the red spectrum. Cardinals are perhaps the most likely of birds to appear on magazine covers, virtually always with snow and icicles in the background. The shades of silvery grayish and bluish white are complemented by the cardinal’s particular shade of red.

In my yard right now, my cardinals do not have this perfect magazine backdrop. They’re surrounded by brown, dried up grass and leaves and bare tree branches, but the male’s colors look just as vivid as a cover-bird, and the female, with her intelligent eyes and muted autumnal colors, is somehow just as pleasing, in a soft and quiet way.

A female Hairy Woodpecker has discovered my mealworms and comes a few times a day, though she isn’t nearly as piggish about them as Amanda, the Red-bellied Woodpecker who came every day for many weeks this spring, was. A male Downy Woodpecker comes to the suet right next to the mealworms, but so far hasn’t noticed them. Both kinds of nuthatches not only notice the mealworms; they gobble them down with gusto. I barely start cranking open the window before Red-breasted Nuthatches are there, inches from my hand in the box elder branches or lighting on the window frame as I fill the feeder just below them. Chickadees are a little less impatient, though last winter a few would even light on my hand as I brought out the mealworms.

One of my chickadees is completely missing its tail. I don’t like thinking about what happened to it, but I do like knowing the little chickadee managed to dodge a dangerous situation. Chickadee tails are long and narrow, providing them an excellent tool for quick maneuvers in flight, but this one seems so far to be doing okay without it. It’s odd how a little physical quirk that distinguished one particular chickadee from the dozens in my yard suddenly endears that one chickadee to me above the others, giving me a stake in its survival.

November is a difficult month for us humans to endure, that awkward time before we can sled and ski and skate but after the temperature has thoroughly chilled our spirits. These chickadees and other birds in my backyard, facing the winter as naked as jaybirds, one missing its tail, are a testament to resilience and strength, the ability to salvage sustenance and even enthusiasm from a cold dark November world. And watching them busily making the best of it somehow lends me some of their resilience and enthusiasm even in these cold, dark and dull days.