For the Birds Radio Program: Autumn Blues
Every year as days grow shorter and leaves change colors and start to fall, I find myself growing somber, even morose. Maybe it’s because nightfall arrives earlier and earlier each day as sunrise comes later and later. Maybe it’s because bare branches reaching up to the skies seem somehow sad supplicants, abandoned and destitute. Maybe it’s because some of my favorite songbirds are gone for the year, and most of the rich bird song that so cheers my heart is now silent, not to be heard again for six months. The quiet earth-tones of a northern forest in mid- and late-autumn turn my thoughts to Robert Frost’s words in “Reluctance:” “Ah, when to the heart of man/ Was it ever less than a treason/ To go with the drift of things, /To yield with a grace to reason, /And bow and accept the end/ Of a love or a season?” Or I think of Frost’s woods, “lovely, dark, and deep,” symbolic of endings and of death itself.
But autumn’s meaning is far richer and brighter than simply signifying a sad ending. Imagine if on the first spring days we grew obsessed with sorrow over winter’s end rather than the joy of new growth and the beauty of a new season. Autumn leaves don’t turn brown before they’ve assumed brilliant reds, oranges, and yellows. And even after they’ve fallen, those bare branches could be seen as lovely arms relieved of their heavy, leafy burdens for a season rather than desperately praying for salvation. Fallen leaves make way for new spring buds to appear in nature’s endless pattern of growth and rejuvenation. This year’s fallen leaves enrich forest soils, protecting the earth from excessive cold and keeping the soil surface moist so seeds can germinate and invertebrates can survive for their own selves and to provide food for birds.
Many summer birds do depart in autumn, but they’re replaced with new arrivals from the north. Winter birds may not do much singing, but their call notes ring out like magical hammers tapping on diamonds. Minnesotans can’t look into our backyards in May or June to see Pine Grosbeaks or redpolls, Northern Shrikes or Northern Hawk-Owls. Some birds that we do occasionally see during the breeding season, like juncos, Evening Grosbeaks and crossbills, become more abundant in winter.
And some birds are with us no matter what the season. Pileated Woodpeckers are just as common in winter and easier to see without foliage blocking our view. Ruffed Grouse and Sharp-tailed Grouse grow funny little outgrowths on their toes which serve as grippers on icy branches, enabling these birds to spend many winter daylight hours sitting high in bare trees feeding on aspen buds where we can watch them at leisure. Once cardinals extend their range into a new area, they don’t care about the season, and their red plumage stands out against white snow much more dramatically and beautifully than it does against anything else.
And of course chickadees are with us no matter what the season. We don’t understand their language quite enough to discern what their real opinion of winter is. For all we know, some of those sweet-sounding dee-dee-dees could be obscene mutterings about the weather or morose, poetical musings about death. But whatever they think about in fall and winter, just seeing chickadees elevates our mood. Every winter I hear from deer hunters, cross-country skiers, parents who pull their toddlers in sleds, and shut-ins, all with happy stories about chickadees. And that’s fitting. These gray, black, and white birds are the colors of winter, and their eyes sparkle like new-fallen snow. Their tiny size belies their inner strength and heat, keeping them alive when the temperature plummets to 60 below zero. On those long walks in the autumnal woods, our dark moods can be broken with even a passing glance at these sprites, sparkling with life and warmth and the absolute certainty that tomorrow is another day.