Midwinter Visitors

Tufted Titmouse is one in a flock of midwinter foragers

The Tufted Titmouse is one in a flock of midwinter foragers.

Today as ice fell from the white-gray sky, I remembered a bitter day a decade ago. The February morning was cold, and my two sons Tyler and Joseph and I stayed inside. Subdued in our post-holiday routines, the hours passed slowly. But around midmorning, an unfamiliar sound outside became noticeable. Barely audible at first, it grew, seeming to draw nearer, until it became a distinct twittering and chirping, a swelling of voices – birds singing!

“Mommy, come see!” My five-year old Joseph was pressed against the window. Tyler and I followed. The sky was alive – electrified – with birds. Flitting from tree to tree – birds, and more birds, circling tree trunks, probing bark, poking through the leaves.

Scores of chickadees and titmice filled the yard, along with birds I had never seen – small brisk woodpeckers, a nuthatch with a brown head, a little warbler with a flash of yellow at its tail. Tyler brought forth the bird guide, and we repeated each name for Joseph as we found it: Downy Woodpecker! Brown-headed Nuthatch! Yellow-rumped Warbler!

But our visitors moved on long before we tired of the show. The yard emptied like a sieve, leaking life and song. For hours the boys talked about the birds. Why had they come? Where had they gone? And they lamented – why did they leave so soon?

A field guide dispelled the mystery:  “…Continuing throughout fall and winter into early spring, mixed foraging flocks patrol forests and fields…mostly insectivorous species…A forest will appear empty of birds in winter, only to suddenly have the trees swarming with vocalizing chickadees, titmice, and other species.”

All our feeders filled with seed, all the fruiting shrubs planted just for birds – and our visitors were after plain old insects. I couldn’t help but laugh.

The birds never returned. Yet they sang in my memory all winter long, a bright song in that dark season. And one day as I sadly looked upon my cold silent yard it came to me – their visit was not just a memory; it was a promise – a promise that even in the cold of winter, Life would endure, a promise that one spring morning the silence would end and we would hear the songs once more.

How do birds survive the winter? Many small birds have an average body temperature of 107 degrees, and can forage with no apparent discomfort. The typical chickadee has 2000 feathers, with muscular control over all of them. It “fluffs” these feathers to gain better insulation. Some species actually roost together in tree cavities to conserve heat. These include the Brown Creeper, the Winter Wren, the White-breasted Nuthatch, and the Eastern Bluebird.

Drawing birds closerTo attract foraging birds, you can try making a thin “pssh pssh” sound or kissing the back of your hand – sounds which mimic distress calls.

A good nature guide for reading: John Krichner’s Ecology of Eastern Forests, of the Peterson Field Guide series.