For the Birds Radio Program: December Gloom
If even the tiniest chickadee or nuthatch, naked as a jaybird, can face the worst of winter head on without complaints, exuberantly celebrating life even at the time when their own lives are most at risk, we bundled up humans inside our warm homes should be able to find one or two things to cheer about too.
As we approach the winter solstice, what Robert Frost called the “darkest evening of the year,” a gloom descends on the northland. Nights are long and cold, days are short and cold, and many of the late migrants disappear for the duration. My last little White-throated Sparrow courteously showed up on December first and second so I could add it to my month list, but then moved on. A Rusty Blackbird showed up on December 4 and returned the next day, but then he headed out, too. For one brief and shining moment on the 8th, three Pine Grosbeaks appeared, but then a squirrel jumped up into the feeder and they flew off. This would be a great time to go skiing, when there are so few birds to distract that it’s possible to focus on the world whizzing past and celebrate the sheer physicality of the winter sport, but in Duluth we’re still waiting for deeper snow and fewer bare patches.
Of course, nothing is completely flat and dismal as long as there are chickadees on the scene, and I’ve got a host of them, along with a half dozen adorable little Red-breasted Nuthatches and a couple of White-breasted Nuthatches. Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers and juncos round out the regulars, and every day I see at least 7 or 8 species. But from minute to minute, my squirrels far outnumber my birds. And this is the time of year, when snow is still spotty and the landscape brown, when I’m most hungry for color.
Perhaps it’s this December grayness that inspire so many different faiths to celebrate major happy holy days close to the solstice—this is when we need lights and gaiety and joy. Otherwise, as daylength ebbs, the only things most of us have to look forward to in our immediate future are more cold and snow. After the solstice, days immediately start to get longer, but it will be at least a month before we actually sense that, and meanwhile we still have to get through the coldest month of all, January. Perhaps the reason so many Americans celebrate Christmas with gift giving and receiving is to heighten a sense of anticipation right when otherwise there isn’t much to look forward to for a long while.
Birds, who mark no special holidays in December, aren’t in an anticipatory mode right now. Virtually none of them are singing, and even when a chickadee forgetfully blurts out a “hey, sweetie” song, he quickly seems to remember what season it is and shuts up again. Birds live much more in the present than we humans do, and perhaps that is part of why we are so drawn to them in winter. They don’t pin their hopes and dreams on spring; they simply pile on more down feathers and body fat and tough out even the worst blizzards and cold snaps with equanimity and high spirits, reminding us that even the grayest day is a gift. If even the tiniest chickadee or nuthatch, naked as a jaybird, can face the worst of winter head on without complaints, exuberantly celebrating life even at the time when their own lives are most at risk, we bundled up humans inside our warm homes should be able to find one or two things to cheer about too.