In the waning days of a lingering winter that has overruled spring, some of the small birds begin to die. We see them at the feeder hunched and rounded, head tucked beneath the wing, seeking warmth. Feathers fluffed against the chill in a vain attempt to retain what heat they have, the small birds face the light of a new day as they have faced the light of the long winter just now passing.
The shadow of winter has stretched over April. Dawn brings chill; snow crunches underfoot and ice glazes sidewalk and roadway. At daybreak, the small birds seek feed. They alight at the feeder in a rush of wings; they feed, eyes bright like specks of starlight. They have spent the dark days and long nights of winter here. They have survived.
Now as days grow longer, some of their company begin to die.
There seem two schools of thought on this: One holds that the birds simply wear down. The winter has been too long; they have had to fight too long of a battle. They have no reserves; they have no will. They simply have borne too heavy a weight of the stress of the long cold.
The other theory maintains simply that bird feed is the culprit; old feed fallen to the ground contaminated with age and mold and dirt causes Salmonella in some of the small birds that consume it. In their never-ending need for food, the birds ingest the bad feed, sicken, weaken, die.
In the end it may not matter; the birds fail. The birds die.
They are small birds, siskins or red polls from what we can tell; most of the others seem fine. We have watched them at the feeders. We have taken comfort in their vitality in the cold, in their spirit in the darkness. Now we watch as some falter and die.
We saw one, then another, then a third; this over several weeks time. Random, it seemed; no pattern to it. Then last week on one day I saw two of them, feeble and weak and when I walked up to them, they did not fly. I lifted one from the ground to a feeder, set it there off the chill of the crust of snow. And in that act alone knew the bird was doomed; a healthy bird would not allow that.
On that day we took down the feeders, erring on the side that it was bad food that caused the bird sickness, knowing as we did that we were not the only source of food, good or bad, but knowing we had to do something.
On the next day a grackle fell ill. I saw it on the ground and something about it did not look right. They are a bird of some power and confidence; this one seemed worn down. When I opened the door it flew, but weakly, and could not clear the fence. Thor was in the yard and saw the bird and ran to it and killed it. Just like that. He is a bird dog; he does what he is hardwired to do.
Two weeks ago, one of the small birds teetered on the edge of the feeder then flew weakly to the ground. It did not fly far; it was too weak.
It stood hunched on the snow as we watched from inside. It was just off the deck, not far from the house. There was, of a sudden, a flash of movement, a blur of feather and wing; a shrike struck the bird, killed it; just like that.
The shrike is the size of a blue jay, but is a meat eater. Its scientific name, in rough translation, is Latin for “butcher.” The shrike met our eye then picked up the bird and flew off with it.
I had never seen a shrike in town, never seen it so close, never seen it kill. Now I have. The shrike is a killer; it does what it is hardwired to do.
There are more birds in the yard now, migrants come back to the North. We see them, the mix of robins and cowbirds and blackbirds and grackles. Every day, new birds move in. This week we saw warblers and, on the open water, loons.
We take them all in, take in the joy of the birdsong, open our eyes to the birds of spring even as the snow lingers and the mornings hold cold and the afternoons never bring much warmth. Out of town on the rivers with open water, we see swan and mallard, Canada goose and sandhill crane, kingfisher and heron. We see the waterfowl; the white sides of bufflehead and goldeneye; the flashy color of wood duck; the stolid scaup and ring-neck and the mergansers.
The birds tell us of the change in season even as the weather betrays us. The birdsong gives us a flash of optimism that the spring flowers have failed to deliver. The white of the early birds overpowers the white of late snow.
In the shade of woods, snow lies unbroken and unhumbled by a rising sun. The warmth of April is a charade, a promise broken. The warm, gentle April showers have never come; snow instead falls as if December was at hand. One wonders:Will we have more snow fallen to ground in April than we did in December? But in the yard in the last weeks of a long winter, we fret for the small birds driven by the question of what causes their death. It is difficult to see; the small birds so full of life turn dull with fatigue or sickness and fall to the ground as leaf does in autumn.
I lift them in my hand, the small birds, and they seem to have no weight; no more weight than a beam of light or the passing breeze or the cloud above. I see their feathers move in the breeze as if the bird is still alive, but I know this is not so. On the snow it is as if they have no scent; the dogs run past them and do not turn.
But the weight of the small birds is measured not on a scale; is not totaled in ounces or fractions; the weight of the birds is in what we make of them and in that they carry substance far beyond their size. A fallen bird is like a shadow; no weight but for what it brings to us. As shadow brings chill, so a fallen bird brings a measure of despair and sadness.
They say the weather will warm this weekend; that the drive of temperature will break the final bones of a late winter. In the warm weather more birds will come; in the warm weather the flowers of spring will rise from the dirt and mud.
We will watch it all; we will welcome it all. We will watch the small birds all along, watch them in the trees and on the ground, watch as they carry on to the next season. We will watch them, yes, of course we will. But we will not forget the ones that died, the small birds that did not last the final weeks in the time when the grip of winter held on too long and too tight and too hard.
An assortment of outdoor products is available at Mel’s Trading Post in downtown Rhinelander. Call (715) 362-5800. To comment on this story, visit StarJournalNOW.com.