For the Birds Radio Program: March: The Good, the Bad, and the Tragic

Original Air Date: March 14, 2001

The end of winter is the hardest time of the year, even as some lovely signs of spring are already happening.

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This is the time of year in the northland when it’s hard to be certain whether it’s the end of winter or the beginning of spring. As I write this on March 11, 2001, I’ve just gotten off the phone with a woman telling me about yet another dead owl in a backyard. Today there have been calls about a dead Saw-whet and now a dead Barred Owl. Yesterday I got two calls about dead Boreal Owls.

There is so little time of winter and hardship left on the calendar before the warmth and new life of spring returns, yet what little winter remains turns out to be the harshest time of all. Even as owls grow thinner and more desperate for food, the snow gets more and more crusted and impenetrable, and food becomes scarcer–with every predator’s meal, there is one less mouse for anyone else to eat.

Soon mice will be in full breeding production again, and in less than a month there’ll be a whole new generation of mice running about, but right now the mouse population is as small as it’s been since autumn. Winnowing out the weak is a cruel and ugly process, even as it ultimately produces the fittest and most splendid creatures of all. Just as high school basketball playoffs finally eliminate some darned good teams that hung on undefeated for virtually the entire season, so this final natural playoff is going to eliminate some darned fit owls at the last possible moment before spring abundantly rewards the victors.

If winter’s end is dragging on more painfully than I can bear, spring’s beginning is still rushing in with beauty and excitement. Today when I stepped outside, a loud rapping drew my eyes up into my box elder, where I discovered my Pileated Woodpecker back. At this point the male and female have apparently given up on their building plans for my box elder, but have started using the tree for advertising their territory. Something about any woodpecker drumming is so vital, vibrant, and invigorating that my heart races at the sound, and a pileated drumming is the most joyful of all. It’s thrilling to imagine that somewhere right here on Peabody Street there will soon be young pileateds enriching the earth with their funky beauty and splendid bearing.

Chickadees are singing their “hey sweetie” song, so sweet and wistful, calling to mind the unbearable lightness of being. How can something so much tinier and seemingly more fragile than any owl be thriving even as owls keel over? Every chickadee is a small miracle, powerful testimony that this earth we inhabit together is spinning through a benevolent universe. Even during this sad time when owls are dying, the world is making way for the coming of baby chickadees and Pileated Woodpeckers and, yes, even new baby owls. Out of sadness and death come new life, and the very process of this regeneration soothes us as we face our own hardships and loss. As Rachel Carson wrote, “There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature–the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after the winter.”