When a bird falls...
There’s a dead bird in my freezer: a woodpecker, to be exact, Downy, female, just a slight young thing that thought my sliding glass door was something to fly through. She must have hit the glass full tilt. By the time I noticed her on my back steps she was on her back, little claws in the air, quite dead.
I’ve frozen dead birds before—they’re for my friend, Brian. A naturalist by profession, he groaned when I told him I’d helped some neighbors bury a hawk that had tangled itself in their porch and died. “Don’t bury the next bird you find. Put it in the freezer, I’ll come get it to help teach my students,” Brian instructed me. Several years later a small yellowish bird crashed into my storm door, neck quite broken. I dutifully froze the poor thing and called Brian. He came to fetch it, identifying it as a juvenile, which is why we hadn’t been able to figure out what kind of bird it was. Now, just days after we’d put up a new bird feeder, here was an easily identifiable downy, lacking a red spot on the back of the head, which made it a female. Well, it’s not what made it a female, but it's an easy way for people to tell at a glance whether it was a boy or girl bird.
Word has quickly spread in the bird world that there is a new restaurant in town. With a four-pronged pole, two suet blocks, one sunflower seed holder and one bag filled with thistle seed, we’ve had a huge variety of visitors in the short time our feeder has been in business.
The gold finches have found the thistle seed. A male woodpecker--probably the mate of our poor frozen guest-- has been frequenting the feeder. It makes me sad each time I see him. The larger, red-bellied woodpecker swoops dramatically in, scattering the smaller birds, taking his time eating the suet, then soars off, flying deep into the woods that surround my yard. The chickadees, tufted titmice and juncos take turns at the feeder, using the poles from which the feeders hang as way stations, allowing for a bit of courtesy as they wait their turns. The birds continue to feed cheerfully, despite the woodpecker’s demise, while the squirrels come by occasionally to forage on the ground, having had difficulty maneuvering our feeder arrangement.
A few days ago we woke up to new snow cover, and watched the juncos greedily gathering food against the cold. There was a strange movement underneath the snow. Heading towards the area underneath the feeder, a squirrel, after tunneling its way under the drifts, broke through to check his surroundings, then dove underneath the snow cover looking for treats. Emerging once again, his entire face and whiskers were dotted with snowy clumps, a white-whiskered clown.
As the squirrel circled the bottom of the feeder, the juncos followed in his trail, hoping to find food the squirrel had missed. After an intensive survey of the area, the squirrel hopped back to the nearby tree, in search of a more easily obtained breakfast.
I always wonder what birds do in the terribly cold weather. I know some hide in hollow trees, but there are only so many hollow trees, and so many, many birds. While our bird feeder is an artificial environment, it’s given us little glimpses of these elusive creatures’ behaviors. Right outside my window, I’m given the chance to see how juncos land in the snow with wings widespread to keep their fat, little bodies from sinking into the drifts. Turf battles break out between birds right under my feet as I watch quietly near the sliding door. My cat, meanwhile, enjoys “Cat TV” regularly as she stands by the window, chattering with excitement when birds venture onto the steps.
I am continually grateful for the liveliness, the antics of the birds (and even the squirrels) as they visit my small yard. In this bitterly cold time of year, when so much is dark, bare and still, their activity, energy and determination to live gives me great joy. And occasionally, because of a bird’s deadly miscalculation, I gather one of these small creatures up in my hand, look at it closely, more closely than I ever could while it lived, and tuck it in my freezer to wait for Brian’s arrival, who will then use the bird to help his students better understand and perhaps grow to love the outdoor world.