Grit Blogs > A Lakeside View

The Secret Lives of My Winter Birds

By Cindy Murphy

Tags: Winter Birds, Birds in Winter, Cindy Murphy,

CindyMurphyBlogjpgIt’s the end of March already!!! I hold the unpopular sentiment that winter has flown by too quickly. I’m always forced into spring begrudgingly and dragging my heels, reluctant to put away my cross-country skis for the next three seasons. The first week of March we had enough snow left that I could still ski, but a week-long cycle of thaw by day, freeze at night turned it to a hard crust of ice in the mornings, and mushy soup by the afternoon. Sigh. I just know we’ll get more snow. It’s not over yet. A little bird told me.

Actually, it’s not too far from the truth. None of the transient birds that use my yard as a rest-stop during spring migration arrived yet, and neither are my summer birds back home. My winter birds, the stalwarts who remain here even during the harshest months, are exhibiting none of that springtime twitterpating which was present in Bambi’s forest. What the birds are “telling” me is that winter here is not quite over.

Plants, animals, and birds have been telling us things since ancient times. The changing of the seasons was gauged by their comings and goings, and their behavior was used as an indicator of forthcoming weather patterns. For instance, if a bird built its nest near the ground, water would be scarce; if it chose a spot higher in a tree it indicated summer rainfall would be plentiful. Sometimes these signals took on more mystical meanings. Ancient Greek and Roman seers used birds as visionaries. The power of flight was seen as a way to transport messages, foretell the future, and obtain secret knowledge. The notion that birds are messengers has been so long embedded in our folklore that “a little bird told me” is now used to explain intuition or how secretive information is gained.

This kind of folklore based on actual bird behavior and characteristics is as fascinating to me as watching the birds in my yard go about their daily activities. Weird as it may be, by knowing some of their myths and legends it’s as if I’ve been let in on their little secrets. Take my American crows for example. Because of our close contact with them, crows have affected human culture, art, and religions for thousands of years, in every part of the world, more than any other bird. Volumes and volumes of books are devoted to crow lore. This distinguished gentleman in the plain black suit has worn many colorful hats throughout the centuries, performing such odd jobs as cunning trickster, accomplished thief, prophet, a messenger of death, a god, matchmaker, an intellect, a guardian, and fertility specialist…just to name a few.

American crows are by far by favorites, but let’s meet my other winter birds and the little secrets they have to tell.

The daily arrival of house finches brings commotion. They constantly vie for perching rights on the feeders with the less lucky resigned to what falls to the ground. Don’t feel too bad for them though. Finches are messy eaters, flinging seeds everywhere so there’s plenty for those beneath the feeders. Always in flocks, it’s easy to see why finches symbolize group living. They’re also symbols of diversity, new experiences and encounters. Perhaps, (at least in the case of house finches), this stems from the way they came this area. They aren’t natives here; they’re California transplants. Pet dealers illegally captured and brought them to New York in 1940 to be sold as “Hollywood Finches”. After the dealers were discovered by authorities, some released the birds to avoid prosecution. The adaptable finches quickly spread throughout the eastern United States. I, for one, am glad they came; the gray and white winter landscape is brightened by their bright red breasts, and cheerful song.

Speaking of gray and white landscapes…the dark-eyed juncos blend in perfectly. Being strictly ground-feeders, they benefit from the house finches’ messy eating habits, and like the finches, they travel and feed in flocks. These cute, little dark gray birds with white bellies are often called “snowbirds” because folklore tells us sighting them is a sign of cold weather and snow approaching. I prefer the other reason behind the “snowbird” nickname; its coloring is described as “leaden skies above, snow below”.

My mourning doves come as a matched set; I never see one without the other. Most people recognize doves as an international symbol of peace; they also symbolize love, gentleness, and strong bonds. I can’t help but imagine my mourning doves are in love, sitting side-by-side, cooing softly and huddled together against the winter weather. But once, all was not so lovey-dovey and peaceful. Old superstitions regard doves as death omens. You certainly wouldn’t want to see them circling your house, or tapping on a window – it meant death was sure to follow. Spring is different though; hope is eternal. According to folklore, if I was a single woman, I might eagerly listen for the dove’s first coo of spring. Upon hearing it, I’d take nine steps forward, nine steps back, and take off my right shoe. In it I’d find the hair of my future husband, (the wives tale doesn’t give instructions as to how I’d know the hair’s rightful owner….unless he’s the balding one because his hair is now in my shoe). I’m not sure why I’d want to perform these steps, either, (nineteen of them to be exact) just to find hair in my shoe. Now, if that springtime cooing brought Dove chocolate…well, that’s a different story.

Unlike a dove, you want to see a cardinal tapping on your window. It means good fortune is coming your way. Maybe he’s tapping out the winning the lottery numbers…or maybe he’s just protecting his ground. Male cardinals are territorial; often they can be seen fighting other males over a mate, or defending their turf. When a cardinal pecks at a window, he thinks his reflection is another bird he must keep out of his territory. I’ve never seen this happen, but I have seen my cardinals fly toward the sky, which also means good luck. Conversely, if seen flying toward the ground, bad luck is approaching. Regardless of superstition, I always feel lucky to have these beautiful birds near.

Just as handsome a fellow as the cardinal is the blue jay. Whoever coined the phrase “naked as a jaybird” was surely not looking at a male blue jay, decked out in his bright but tasteful suit of blue, black, and white. Handsome as he may be, he’s not very well liked at feeders, always noisy, always causing a ruckus. His unruly behavior translates into legends which depict him as a thief and mischievous jokester, playing tricks on humans, animals, and other birds. As a result, one by one he lost his friends until he was ostracized by all. A curious bit of folklore states if ever you find one of his gorgeous blue feathers, soak it in rain water, and brush it over your sleeping child’s eyes thus preventing the child from ever losing his sight. Maybe it’s because in his bright blue suit, a blue jay can never be totally hidden from sight.

In winter, different species of birds seek food and eat together. This communal dinner party is called a foraging guild, and is often comprised of chickadees, nuthatches, titmice, and downy woodpeckers. They’re my fast food drive-through window junkies, grabbing a seed on the go….then returning for another just as soon as they’ve eaten the first.

Chickadees are fun, enthusiastic little birds whose cheerful behavior is reflected in the folklore surrounding them. When a chickadee perches near your house, it’s supposed to mean a long lost friend will return; his zealous song signals good weather is in the forecast, and if you happen to see this acrobatic little bird hanging upside down, expect good news to follow shortly. In Native American legends, the chickadee is a bird of truth. If nothing else, chickadees are definitely entertaining.

Just as fun to watch as chickadees are the ever-busy nuthatches. They never sit still, darting here and there, from a tree to the feeder and back to the tree again, maybe walking up and down the trunk a few times, both forward and backward, and round and round before heading back to the feeder. They take full advantage of the foraging guild, recognizing and relying on the alarm calls of the other species in the guild to warn them of approaching predators. These behaviors translate into the nuthatch being a symbol of courage, faith, trust, and having the ability to see things from a different prospective. To see a nuthatch in your dreams means to stay sharp and aware as you may be going into things headfirst.

The tufted titmouse is the most assertive of the foraging guild, though not much larger than chickadees and nuthatches. Often times they shell the seeds they collect one by one from the feeder, and hide the kernels nearby. Their call is their protection; it starts off loud then fades away, fooling predators into thinking the titmouse has flown into the distance while he’s actually hidden nearby. He is symbolic of aggressiveness, agility, and a powerful voice, and his behavior won him the spotlight in the folklore of different cultures. A Russian proverb says “Don’t promise the crane in the sky, but give the titmouse in your hand.” Both the chickadee and titmouse appear in Cherokee legend as messengers; the chickadee is a respected truth teller, but the titmouse is scorned as a false messenger, and a liar. Though he’s present year-round, weather folklore considers him a good indicator of cold approaching: “A noisy titmouse is Jack Frost's trumpeter.”

I have two species of woodpeckers in the yard. The downy woodpeckers, (who are all named Earl), are part of the foraging guild, and the Northern flickers come solo, or in a pair. The flickers only occasionally use the feeder; most times they stick to the trees, and I hear them drumming before seeing them. Woodpeckers are the percussionists of the bird kingdom. This drumming of his is likened to the beat of a martial drum, and thus he was considered sacred to Ares, the Greek god of war. In other cultures it’s thought to resemble thunder, and it signals the rainy season is about to begin. It’s said that woodpecker feathers guard against lightening; a flicker’s feather in particular is a good luck talisman.

And then, of course, there are my crows. I watched them the other day in one of the maples, tugging diligently at branches. Is this a sign spring is really in the air? Are they twitterpated, and nest building in anticipation of young ones on the way? With my crows, I can never tell exactly what they’re up to. Maybe they’re just being mischievous again, as they often are.

Maybe that little bird who told me we’d get snow again was being mischievous too.

Could be he just felt sorry for me.

One recent morning in my pajamas still, I made my way slip-sliding across the ice-encrusted snow to fill the bird feeders. My feet slipped out from beneath me; I fell. Bird food flew everywhere. Slightly dazed and flat on my back on the ice, I was grateful that no one was around to hear the string of expletives I let loose as I hit the ground. Only the little bird was near, and he witnessed the whole thing. I just hope he’s not a stool pigeon.

Postscript: I should not have doubted the little bird. He was right, and we did get snow the first weekend in March. I was able to go cross-country skiing, and savored it all the more because most probably it will be the last time this winter. My birds tell me spring seems to be in the air now. My winter birds are starting to get twitterpated, and the robin has returned.  

Note: I can’t seem to get close enough to get a picture of the birds without them flying away. For some amazing photos of many of the birds I mentioned in this blog, check out check out GRIT Blogger, Lori Dunn’s “When the Weather Outside is Frightful, Homemade Bread is So Delightful.”