A thoughtful essay from Albatrossity.
It’s sometimes hard to process our relationships with the natural world, and I was reminded of that, brutally, this week. The midsection of the continent has endured an intrusion of Arctic temperatures when the polar vortex weakened and then herniated. Here in my part of Flyover Country we had a week and a half of intermittent snow showers, steadily dropping temperatures, and cloud cover that eliminated our normal solar daytime heating cycle. We watched the thermometer as if it were an oracle, and it emitted increasingly ominous pronouncements.
All through the week the overnight lows crept ever lower, and the daytime highs never really lived up to that name. The birds in the neighborhood responded, as they usually do, by ramping up their feeding and foraging activities all week long. Seed-eating birds were happy to find the feeders, stocked with sunflower seeds and dried berries. Our five winter-resident woodpeckers gobbled down the suet. And the acres of buckbrush, cedar, and honeysuckle behind the house set the table for the frugivorous waxwings and thrushes.
We have a heated bird bath on the back deck that hosted ever-increasing flocks of robins and waxwings, as well as the occasional Hermit Thrush and Eastern Bluebird. Their honeysuckle-heavy diet was glaringly obvious, as piles of orange poo accumulated in rings around the water tub. We added a second water bowl; it immediately attracted customers and its own ring of poo.
For all the winters that we have lived in this house, we have had Hermit Thrushes as fellow travelers. We see them early in the morning at the bird bath, sporadically through the day, and at night occasionally spot one heading down below the deck, where we suspected it might be roosting in that relatively warmer microclimate. This year we had at least three, one with very dark breast spots and two with lighter spots. All three were frequent visitors at the bird bath, even scrapping with the much bigger robins for a space at the trough, as the week went on and the temperatures became more frightful. We hoped that they were getting enough to eat; we could provide water, but they were skeptical about the raisins and other dried fruit bits we put out for them. So the food they found on their own was the food they depended on.
The night of February 14-15 was the killer. On the deck our thermometer registered -14 F; the official temperature at the local airport about 4 miles away was -21 F. Dawn came, and I saw a couple of robins and one of the light-spotted Hermit Thrushes already at the bird bath, not drinking but simply warming up in that micro-space that was not -20. I was hopeful that they had made it through, and the forecast said that warmer temperatures were on the way.
But the day went on, and the numbers of robins dropped to 2 or 3 at a time (compared to 20 or 30 the day before), and no more Hermit Thrushes were to be seen. Same for the next day. They might have moved on (but to where?), and that is the story I kept telling myself.
Today, with outside temps in the mid-20s (double digits above zero!), Elizabeth investigated under the deck. The worst fears proved true. Huddled in dry leaves, against the side of the house, was a Hermit Thrush. It was the dark-spotted one, who had arrived in mid-November and cheered us nearly daily. Cold, stiff, and nearly weightless; it was feathers, skin, and bone but not much else.
This killing weather doubtless took many birds, and this was just one. But it was personal, and I felt it more keenly because of that. But I also understood, at a level slightly removed from the gut-wrenching sight of that pitiful carcass, that our fellow travelers on this planet are paying a very high price because of us. Our usurpation of spaces and resources makes it ever more difficult for other species to find space and resources. Despite all we tried to do to help this creature, and others like it, we (all of us) killed it.
Most of us have precious few tangible, emotional connections to the world around us these days, even though we depend on that world. The planet that provides food, water, shelter, and space to our fellow travelers does the same for us, but we’d rather not think about it too much. We’d prefer to think that we are special. Moments like this, where that dependence is intellectually and emotionally in-your-face obvious, are increasingly rare, and perhaps that makes them increasingly painful. This hurt.
One bird. What difference does that make?
A world of difference.
May I share this with students in my class on environmental justice next fall? It’s beautiful.
@Red Cedar: Thanks. Please share as widely as possible.
Beautiful and so very very true. Thank you. Chicago has also been cold, though not as bad as you and our heated bird bath has also been heavily frequented.
I seem to be spending a lot of time lately in dusty rooms where onions are being peeled.
That’s beautiful, Albatrossity. Thank you.
Steve in the ATL
“Ring of poo”
A heartbreak, beautifully told.
I am afraid for all the creatures who share this planet with us.
Well said, and thought provoking.
100 plus or minus miles north. No robins for many months or cedar wax wings (ever) and I might have missed hermit thrushes. Same temps.
Our regulars seem to have made it, sparrows, juncos, cardinals, flickers, downy woodpeckers, red breasted woodpeckers, Carolina wrens, red and white breasted nuthatches. I find it interesting that a few miles make so much difference in the birds we get. I guess the difference in species but same basic weather partly explains why ours did better in the cold. But yeah, where do you go when it is cold all the way down to TX?
Did notice some birds liked the heated bird bath just for warmth.
Very nicely written. I always love it when a writer ties a very personal act of caring to a broader truth about humanity or nature. That is what Albatrossity has done here – feeding and warming little birds gave him deeper insight into the interconnectedness of all life on this planet. Kudos.
Thank you for this. I will share it yet I think this deserves much wider publication.
I have been fussing over my gathering of birds. I used to have to reach up to fill my bird feeder on a pole. Then I was even with it, walking on the accumulated snow. Today, I looked down iinto it.
I have a backyard devoid of cover…one tree and very few in the neighbors’ yards. I’m thinking of finding a young pasture cedar as I want something fast growing for better cover and quick retreat from hawks. (I grabbed a neighbor’s discarded Christmas tree and have it back there for some additional cover now.) Do you think that a decent idea?
We had a foot-plus snowstorm here around 15 years ago, followed by below zero temperatures. As the snow slowly melted over the next few weeks, more and more bodies of robins emerged. It was horrible.
This is really beautiful and heartbreaking. Thank you.
Am suddenly reminded of a poignant little nursery rhyme:
The north wind doth blow,
And we shall have snow,
And what will poor robin do then?
He’ll sit in the barn
To keep himself warm,
And tuck his head under his wing.
Even as a tiny girl, I was always saddened by that poem.
@rivers: Beautiful and heartbreaking, it really is both. I cried when Albatrossity sent me the writeup. I cried when I copied it in to create the post. I cried when I added the photos, particularly the solo photo. What a lovely little creature she was.
We have to do better.
Oh, your heartbreak getting up every morning to fewer and fewer birds. Beautifully written. Thank you for sharing it.
West of the Cascades
I do environmental law for a living and am working on a case trying to protect sage-grouse, some of whose populations have shrunk to a few hundred individuals, where every bird still matters and should be protected, and this made me just break down bawling. Thank you.
I spent nearly a decade working to protect Atlantic salmon, and then moved into working with conservation law. This essay really encapsulates how humans are failing at recognizing what’s happening outside our windows and doors. All the issues of our lack of caring about the environment show up in our backyards and so many don’t even notice. What happens to the hermit thrushes, the right whales and the Atlantic salmon will eventually happen to us. Humans, by and large, are a very stupid critter.
Beautifully written and heartfelt. Thank you.
Thank you, David. Where I live, after 3 or 4 winters where the lowest overnight temps were around zero, this year we have barely gotten up to zero during the day for the past two weeks. We’ve had 12-15 inches of snow cover for even longer. I hate to think of the wildlife that hasn’t made it through.
This is beautiful, and heartbreaking. I’m wondering how my own much loved back yard visitors have fared through the past two weeks of bitter cold.
Up here in Gatineau, we have been graced since the lockdown started in March with a number of goldfinches. In the past we have seen them flit around in the summer, but this year they have stayed all winter. We just have a 6 perch feeder that hangs from the same hook as one of our hanging baskets. In late fall, I collected pinecones and small branches for the hanging basket, so it would look, to me anyway, pretty and seasonally appropriate. I did the same with the window boxes and also put our little denuded Christmas tree out on this little balcony. So while I sit at our table, working for home, I can look out and see our birds feeding. We kind of joke that as we re-decorated the balcony from summer flowers and our houseplants to a winterscape that the birds really look around and say “I’m liking how they redid the restaurant”. Anyway, one goldfinch had a damaged foot, so we always worried about him/her. But in the last week or so I’ve seen a goldfinch with one foot hanging on the basket chain many times and am assuming it is the same bird. Using the chain to reach the food seem to be easier than using a perch. Yesterday, there were 10 goldfinches and a couple of chickadees feeding. The goldfinches took the six perches, but the rest of them were foraging in the basket, where the spilled seed would fall. It just gives me such a thrill to see them every day.
@West of the Cascades: Thanks. And good luck with the Sage Grouse fight. A spectacular bird, and we need more of them…
And thanks, all, for the kind words. This was hard to write, but necessary. I couldn’t keep it bottled up inside me. I’m glad it resonated with others.
J R in WV
A very moving essay. I love birds, we have woodpeckers galore, barred owls, hawks, and all the little Appalachian birds too. Tonight it will be 15 degrees, which is pretty cold for our locale, tho I have seen it as low as -27 some years ago — the gas froze off that night!
The sad tale of the hermit thrush, just wow. Very well done. Like everyone else, tears. Hard truths.
Thanks for sharing, David.
How totally beautiful.
wombat probability cloud
Thank you for this evocative piece. We’re overwintering in the UP of Michigan and, as such, it’s a much more northern group of birds at our feeders: White- and Red-breasted Nuthatches, Chickadees, three woodpeckers (including pileateds), Bluejays, and clouds of the tiny arctic finch Redpolls. Thrushes, robins, Juncos, and Fox Sparrows won’t return until April or so. Warms me to see all the waxwings.
In the fall, during the migration, we had a similar heartbreak. A wave of Swainson’s Thrushes came through before the Hermits, and one of them dashed itself up against a garage window and broke its neck. As you say, it’s just one bird, but you can be sure those windows now have bird-deterrent coverings on them.
It’s a complex mental dance. Death is part of the ecosystem here and it’s a challenge as to how to encourage or discourage individual species…overabundant deer being a case in point.
Beautiful, and sad.
Thanks, the pics are lovely (the detail!) and the story heartbreaking. Last weekend I opened up our backyard shed to grab a sled for the kids. There was an absolute explosion of little birds. My first thought was oh no all the patio stuff is going to be covered in bird poo. My first action was to crack the door open in case they needed to leave and break out a bag of bird food and scatter it on the floor. Going out tomorrow with more food. Patio furniture can be cleaned.
@Nelle: our birds do seem to like the bushes and trees we have near our feeders. They rotate around, taking turns at the feeder and in the shelter of the bushes, sometimes retreating to the trees. The bush they like the best is about 6 foot high, I think, so it doesn’t have to be a big tree.
@West of the Cascades:
Broke my heart. I tossed more seed on the ground for the mountain quail to try to make amends for what we do as humans.
Ella in New Mexico
This post was beautiful, heart wrenching, and a wonderful reminder of just how much this planet is NOT OURS TO DESTROY. The photos—Just beautiful.
We’ll all have a lot of work to do to protect all God’s creatures from climate change in the next few years.
I am so sorry to hear about your bird, Albatrossity. Your tribute is beautiful and profound. I’ve left the door to my backyard shed open during this Arctic blast, if any critters need shelter, they are welcome.
Excellent writing to complement your always excellent photos. Let’s hope for warmer days ahead.
AJ - Mustard Search & Rescue Team
@Albatrossity: ty so much for this.
Much needed, by me anyway.
Bittersweet, just like life. A powerfully empathic piece.
Our sadness binds us to all who suffer.
Cedar Waxwings tend to flock in the winter. They love to eat berries. Blueberrys are good for them. I know because they wiped out a bunch of the berries on one of my bushes. Handsome little devils.
A beautiful, almost unbearably sad essay. Thanks for sharing it.
To help them over winter in any temps we planted a big square of eastern red cedar. It is easily 5 to 10 degrees warmer in the trees than out of them plus zero wind chill. That is where our birds go into torpor over night. They are safe from predators as the cedars are very thick and even where there are no leaves, they are thorny and hurt to go through.
We also planted a hedge row of white pine very close together. The bigger birds like mourning doves sleep in there. Another good tree is a native Alberta spruce, not the cultivar but the native one. Ours is full of cardinals over night. Norway spruce are also good for over wintering nights and freezing cold temperatures.
Very moving recounting of the impact of the weather on birds in the wild. I grieved for their loss.
Here in south central Indiana we have not been above freezing for almost two weeks, and temperatures have dipped repeatedly into teens and then into single digits. Lowest was zero degrees a few days ago.
The small balcony off our third floor bedroom is our bird feeder. We put out suet cage and birdseed daily. We have been hoping it would help the birds survive the cold. At times we have been concerned because the number of birds seemed fewer.
On fat robin has learned to feed from the suet cage by landing on top of it when it is full with a new cake, and pecking the top. He does not seem equipped or have figured out how to cling to the side of the cage. We have never really had robins visit the balcony, they are primarily ground feeders.
@Geo Wilcox: Yes. The woods behind our house is full of eastern red cedar trees. Normally that would be adequate shelter for many, and bigger birds like robins undoubtedly do use them a lot. Smaller birds, who have less in reserve for making it through the night, should be OK there normally as well. But multiple nights in double digits below zero was just a bit too much…
Poor little Hermit Thrush. :(
Mother Nature is coming for us.
Try dried mealworms to feed your little hermit thrushes. Whenever I set them in a bowl on a platform feeder, the thrush shows up as soon as I turn around.
@vigilhorn: We did try feeding fruit (raisin bits). The issues was that we had a couple hundred robins and waxwings that would also eat them. There was no way to ensure that three thrushes would get even a hint that there was food available there.
If the thrushes were the only birds in a feeding frenzy, that might have worked though!
It was a heartbreaking coldspell…
Beautiful post, a great reminder to us all. Beautifully written. Over the last decade or so I find the news on what humans are doing to the planet so depressing that I intentionally avoid it. It’s no way to live, but I get enough ancillary stuff in my day to day job.
In my central Indiana backyard (like Heartland Liberal), I try to keep it well stocked, and take special care when we get the big snows etc. Suet and sunflower seeds are the order of the day. I surrendered to the squirrels with a hanging platform feeder (though often birds are on it), but there is a squirrel-proof hanging feeder also (that at least one squirrel has figured out by hanging on it upside-down so as not to trigger the closing mechanism over the seed compartments. Also have a bluebird feeder in the front, and a finch feeder sock. Have filled the bluebird one a few times lately to see if they are around, and they are! Other birds, though, also go for the freeze dried mealworms.
Saw a NextDoor post of people showing Pileated Woodpeckers–I saw one on my suet about a month ago.
I’m a birder. I hear the Hermit Thrush in the woods in New England in the summer and they winter where I live in the southern tier of the U.S., too.
There’s no telling what a huge percentage of this declining species was just killed by the extreme cold in their winter territory.
I am crushed. Can’t get your story out of my mind.
I’m watching year after year as weather events crush bird populations — megahurricanes that hit birds’ coastal migration routes right in the middle of their migrations, polar vortexes that take out multi-state populations of birds that winter in normally mild-climate areas, failed crops of forest seeds due to weather changes, demolished habitat everywhere from mountain tops to wooded valleys to coastal zones.
We’re seeing a historic, unrecoverable wipeout of most of our bird species.
I just can’t.
I don’t know what else to do as I watch the apocalypse.
It’s more painful than I can describe.
That there kind of says it all, doesn’t it?
Wrenching. I live in coastal California, sheltered from a direct arctic blast. Cold nights, but above freezing. Although I haven’t seen hummingbirds at my feeder for a couple days. I hope they are okay. The ‘finches’ motor through a full Nyjer seed feeder each week, so I think they’re managing okay till spring brings more variety…
@Worrywomyn: First comments by a new name have to be manually approved, but after that they go through automatically.
I approved your comment, and deleted the others that were close to identical. Welcome!