The Secret Lives of My Winter Birds

| 3/31/2011 4:28:49 PM

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.

Cindy Murphy
4/6/2011 10:07:30 PM

Michelle! Been thinking about you, and meant to drop you a line just because. You got a lot of animals, eh? Cats? Dogs? Grandkids? (Just kidding on that last one, yanno.) Our cats are strictly indoors, so they're resigned to yakking at the birds from behind glass. The dog though, likes to think she's a bird-dog. HA! The crows play with her - last fall I almost fell off the porch laughing when one of them dropped an apple it had picked out of the compost pile, and flew up to the maple tree. It dropped it just at the precise moment as Quetta walked beneath the maple's branches, narrowly missing her head. I swear it did it on purpose. Its companion in the tree started cawing, which sounded an awful lot like a laugh to me.

Michelle House
4/5/2011 9:51:10 PM

Hi Cindy I don't see many birds in the yard because of the animals, lol. I did like the fact that you got to go sking on last time. Awesome article as always, :) Hugs Michelle

Nebraska Dave
4/5/2011 8:49:46 AM

Cindy, Safflower seed huh. I'll have to check out the birdseed section at the big box store the next time I get which will most likely be .... today. I guess I never thought about trying to find something the pesky little varmints didn't like to eat. Such a simple thing. Thanks for the tip. All those bird watching years wasted. Have a great bird watching day.

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