Birds In Winter Are Here For The Duration, No Matter How Gloomy It Gets

Feb 25, 2019

Birds in winter may be drab, like us, but they're there.

Here. Outside my window, a barred owl perches in an oak, its feathers streaked gray as the bark it leans into, its eyes blinking and alert, its ears taking in every movement.

Hiking the Holyoke Range, I pass a male downy woodpecker knocking on a hemlock. He's black and white, like many birds this time of year, but also has a red dab on the back of his head. It isn’t much, but it provides some needed contrast, as does his constant activity.

Further on, I hear a raven before I see it, its deep croak resonating against the cliff.

In college, I entered a live trap full of ravens. My task was to grab and band each, then measure the stage of molt, as glossy new feathers replaced the worn ones — part of the process of surviving the seasons.

Now my task is to just listen and look as one raven flies overhead. Wait! There’s two, conducting a call and response, with me in the middle.

They aren’t exotic birds, but they are essential.

They remind me that though the woods seem barren in winter, they aren’t. They're very much alive.

At the river, two crows call out to a red-tailed hawk, all sitting in the same leafless tree under which water freezes and thaws, and mallards come and go. With so few birds around, they stand out not for their beauty, but for their community.

We're all in this together, they seem to say.

A few months ago, I took my mother-in-law to the Cape Cod Canal. She liked seeing the kids on their scooters, but she really enjoyed the birds.

There were only gulls and cormorants, but that didn’t matter.

What did matter was they were there, and she was there, and the sun was shining as the birds flapped their wings, circling, like small boats adjusting their sails.

Back in her room, she asked, "What's that bird?"

"That’s a female cardinal," I said. "She's not that colorful, but she'll be out there all winter."

Susan Johnson teaches writing at the Isenberg School of Management at UMass Amherst.