by Bruce Luck
We stoke the fire and open the blinds to welcome a new winter day. Wrapped around steaming mugs, our fingers are warmed. All is quiet beyond the frosted panes. Fog hides the sun. The yard is lifeless. Then she remembers.
The feeders. They are empty.
I trudge through the snow and a jay squawks for his peanuts. I lay them in a screen mesh basket on a bed of black sunflower seeds and he steals one when I leave. Feeders are filled and suet is tacked high upon the aspen trunk. Thistle seed is poured into a thin cylindrical feeder. Snow shakes out of bare branches as it is hung in the Hawthorn tree. The birdbath is frozen. I chip away the ice and refill it with warm water from the kettle.
Frosted breath hangs in the air. I return to the house and knock snow off boots. With camera and binocs, I settle into my seat, just in time for the opening act. The stage is set, the show about to begin.
The sparrows appear first. A throng of them flock to the Norwegian pine and take cover in its branches. Heard but hidden they slowly emerge. Timid and cautious, they hop to outer branches and survey the yard. Satisfied, they fly to the feeder. Three land as others wait at the fence or sway on wires above. Each feasts then returns seeking safety offered by the pine. The next group takes flight, the feeder sways, and, the ones below ascend to higher branches. There’s safety in numbers and they work in tandem, sharing the seed while others stand watch, ready to warn at first sight of danger.
A larger bird, a dove, ascends and sparrows scatter from the feeder. Through binoculars we delight. The collar differentiates it from the usual mourning doves, a new species to grace our stage. It’s mate joins juncos foraging on the ground. Seeds that they miss pack into the snow and will sprout in the spring. Sparrows reappear and dove willingly shares the feeder.
House finches enter stage right. A domed feeder under the Hawthorne tree discourages the sparrows and the finches can feast unfettered. Bright red male and drab females pluck seed and scamper to the branches. Snow sifts and is joined by by discarded hulls littering the sidewalk below.
A shadow appears, ominous, and swoops through the yard. We didn’t see what it was but know it was massive and dark. There’s no movement in the yard as dove, finch, and sparrow hide in pine or among the ivy. It’s eerily quiet as act one comes to a close.
Slowly they reappear, cautious and attentive. A jay sails for the feeder, quick and skittish. It plucks a peanut then scoots out of the yard. Sparrows are wary, yet dash for the feeder and tempted by the life-giving nourishment that’s there.
Goldfinches, tiny and yellow, venture forth. They cling to a thin cylindrical feeder protected by bare Hawthorn branches. First a few, then more, then a dozen hang upside down or sideways or at any angle to extract its thistle.
Black-capped chickadee sings and announces its presence. It lights on the basket, sneaking a sunflower seed, taking turns with the sparrows. Birdsong again fills the yard.
A blue streak flies across the yard. Bluejay lands on the basket, dispersing doves, sparrows, and chickadees. Swaying with the feeder, it picks up a peanut, then another and another. Finding one it likes, off it flies to tuck it away in the gutter or under a loose shingle on the roof. He returns to the feeder, inspecting peanuts and selecting the next best one.
Then hawk returns without warning.
God, no. Please, not our birds.
It’s a sharp-shinned and circles the pine, hoping to flush out anything foolish that chooses flight over protective branches. Confounded, it sits on the fence, waiting. We walk out, arms flailing, to shoo it away. It’s brazen and squawks and is no hurry to leave. Finally it flees, but with a final attempt to chase prey out of the pine.
The eery silence has returned. Sparrows roost in the pine, the gamble not worth the risk. Morning feeding is over. We take the intermission and go about our day.
Act three opens in the afternoon. The sun has burned through the fog.
There is movement across the fence. Something black and white clutches a trunk high on the maple. The red bright spot on the back of his head blurs as he pounds the tree with a rat-a-tat-tat. Downy woodpecker’s mate flies into the yard and pecks at the suet. She moves to the fence and uses cedar planks to scrapes grease from her beak.
Sparrows stand guard as others splash in the birdbath. Finches and chickadees fill the air with song. The sun drops below the houses and its the last chance to replenish. Birds partake of the life-sustaining nourishment to help fight off the cold. And we watch with apprehension.
Has the hawk had the success in other yards that eluded it in ours? It must eat, too, and surely it will. Has it not a right to food as the others do to seed, thistle, and suet?
Must it be our birds?
Hawk is aware that day is turning to night. With swiftness he brings terror back into the yard. Birds scatter. One slams into the house and hawk is on it at once. Defiantly, it parades on the fence, displayed its prize for all to see. Talons claw at red meat, grey feathers float to the snow.
Please, not the finches or chickadees. Or the downy. The sparrows are numerous. Yet, can we accept one sparrow less? Is one to be valued over the other? Or over the life of a sharp-shinned hawk?
The final curtain closes and we realize we, too, have been players in this winter drama. Our providing thistle and seed, has drawn in the predator. Our kind act of giving life has brought death. Had we not interfered, would this scene have played out?
Is it better to succumb slowly, silently, hungry and chilled, than in a flight of frenzy and terror?
Hawk looks back, then springs and takes flight. Off to roost, nourished and ready to fight off the cold.