Winter is for the Birds

The Link, Winter 2017
| by David Newland |

“The snowbird sings the song he always sings and speaks to me of flowers that will bloom again in spring…” That line always comes to mind as the autumn days turn to winter. But the snowbird doesn’t deserve its wintry name! I’m a fan of the real birds of the snow, the ones that stick around to brighten our backyards throughout the worst of what winter brings.
Just like the retired folks also known as “snowbirds,” the bird in the song is headed away from the snow while the rest of us brace for its arrival. I understand the urge to fly south: a good November storm is enough to make anyone check the map, the calendar and the bank account in hopes of making a hasty retreat.

But that’s just the initial shudder of adjustment as winter approaches. The truth is, I like it here, where we have four seasons (it’s more like eight, nowadays, but you know what I mean.) One of those seasons is cold and dark, and yes, snowy. That’s the one the so-called snowbird avoids. But not so the pretty little charmers who seem to revel in the season: those quirky characters that seem all the more active when the leaves are down and bare branches let them show their true colours.

“I wouldn’t miss seeing them for all the flamingos in Florida!”

I’m talking about the chickadee – the bravest of the bunch and always the first bird at the feeder. I’m talking about the cardinal – the bold red male and the demure dun-brown female with the gorgeous orange beak. The nuthatch probing for bugs upside-down. The arrogant blue jay crashing the party with fluttering displays of machismo. Then there’s the modest pine siskin, the enthusiastic redpoll, the resplendent rose-breasted grosbeak and the delicately hued purple finch sporting nature’s own raspberry beret. I wouldn’t miss seeing them for all the flamingos in Florida!

For me, at least, seeing these winter beauties is a need. Just as we need to see pussy willows in spring, day lilies in summer or the bright red leaves of sumac in fall. We need to watch birds of the snow make the most of the winter. We need to appreciate how they survive and thrive at what ought to be the worst time of the year. We need their cheery reminders that life is lovely, and mysterious, and even in the wintertime, wonderful!

Our feathered friends need us too – for more than just filling the feeder. They need us to grow things they love: native plants with lots of seeds, trees with bark full of tasty bugs, shrubs and bushes they can congregate in. They need us to leave the stalks and heads on our sunflowers, coneflowers, primrose and mullein. They need us to make homes for insects – vital food sources for so many of the songbirds we love.

It’s a fair deal, don’t you think – a little love and attention in exchange for sweet songs and pretty plumage? The snowbird can have the southland. For our beautiful backyard songbirds and for those who love them, winter is for the birds.

David is a writer and musician based in Cobourg. In November of 2015, David was named a Fellow of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society, a distinction that reflects a lifelong engagement with landscape and story.