Updated: Feb 22, 2020
I’ve been thinking about birds a lot as I shovel. We’ve had two big storms in a row and my job’s been to shovel the snow off the third floor deck with my avalanche shovel. I know it sounds a little weird, but I’ve had that shovel for thirty years. I got it in Aspen, I think, all those years ago when I thought I was going to be doing a lot of backcountry skiing. Anyway, now here I am perched on the roof of a narrow house in the city shoveling off the deck. We feed the birds illegally here—or at least someone told me it was illegal. A mix of juncos, and purple finches, and pigeons, one solitary chickadee, and lots of sparrows. I watched one sparrow after the first storm warming up slowly. She was fluffed up and disheveled, her soft feathers all out of whack. She sat for a long time on the edge of the deck near the chimney warming herself. I was afraid she was dying. But after about an hour or two she flew off.
A woman and her son came down the street after the first storm when I was shaking snow off the boxwood in a barrel by the house, and she asked, “Are there still birds here? I thought they all went away in the winter.”
I started to think about how strange it must be to think that the winter has no birds.
I usually don’t worry about where my birds are sleeping or what squirrels do at night. But once it snowed and snowed and snowed again and we ran out of seed, I started to wonder and worry.
Today I pulled two books off the shelves. A Guide to Nature in Winter by Donald W. Stokes and Winter World by Bernd Heinrich.
This is what I found: The house sparrows, chickadees, and finches feed on hibernating insects in the crevices of trees, and berries on bushes and trees. The starlings and pigeons aren’t fussy and will feed on human refuse.
Chickadees sleep in almost any tight cranny or cavity. Sometimes they have bent feathers in the morning. Their body temperature lowers. They have dense plumage and fluff up to keep warm. One researcher watched a chickadee shiver all night even though the bird was sleeping. I wonder if the fluffed up messy sparrow I saw was half asleep and shivering, after a night wedged under one of my rose bushes on the deck.
A robin showed up after I scattered rice checks on the deck. She’s the only bird who seems to like the taste. I watched her all puffed up, gobbling one and then several more of the square pieces of cereal. Swallowing each morsel with a gulp.
My birdseed is stuck in some FedEx warehouse somewhere in New Jersey. But our deck is just one of the foraging places that the birds go to each day.