Between leaf season and snow season comes what Vermonters call stick season, when the landscape is reduced to endless vistas of bare trunks and branches, all in shades of gray. The skies are mostly gray, too, as are the squirrels and the rabbits. The chipmunks in their little orange coats would add some color, but they disappeared weeks ago into their hygge holes.
The birds that, like me, scorn to flee Vermont winters for places like Florida, also wear basic gray, enhanced with bits of white, black, and slate blue. The only spot of bright color outside my window is the red dot on the back of the head of the hairy woodpecker, and on his smaller cousin, the downy.
I’ve been watching chickadees feed, and worrying about how they keep body and soul together. They swoop to the feeder, pick up a single sunflower seed, and dash off to a tree that, in chickadee terms, is the equivalent of a hundred miles away. There, clamping the seed onto the branch with their claws, they attack it with the force of a miniature jackhammer. When they are done with that seed, they shoot back to the feeder, get another seed, zoom to a distant perch, and repeat the process.
How many calories are in a single sunflower seed–two? And how many calories does a chickadee use in those mad dashes to and from the feeder, plus all that hammering to break the shell? If I had to travel as far and work as hard for every morsel of food I would be a living skeleton—or more likely a dead one.
(Nuthatches, I’m told, can’t grasp a seed with their feet, so instead they jam it into a crevice in the tree bark to hold it steady while they go at it with their beak.)
I put a heater in the bird bath to keep it from freezing, and, after two years of ignoring it, the birds have fallen in love with it. But again, as with feeding, drinking looks like more trouble than it’s worth. A chickadee lands on the edge of the bath, looks up for hawks and owls, looks down for snakes and cats, fluffs its feathers, peers right, then left. Takes a sip. Looks down, looks up, fluffs feathers, etc. Takes sip, then whooshes off. Again, how much water can that teensy beak hold? Three molecules?
With the exception of certain squirrels, all the small critters outside my window seem to live with endless panic in their breasties. Like Robert Burns, who empathized so tenderly with the plight of a field mouse, I worry about what it must be like to live in a constant state of fear. Do the field mice and the titmice ever feel safe enough to relax? Or are they under constant stress, wondering when, if ever, it’s o.k. to venture out of their homes?
Maybe the reason that I’m thinking so much about the stress levels of these tiny folk is that I, along with most of humanity, am also feeling endangered this autumn. Like the chickadees and their fellows, I think twice before leaving my place of safety, save my outings for food shopping, and don’t congregate in flocks. Peering nervously through my mask-fogged glasses as I push my cart down the aisle, I keep to myself, alert to invisible dangers. I do not linger at the checkout counter, but dash back to the house with my little bag of sustenance, there to eat in safety.
I remember from Catholic school that reassuring phrase about God (Goddess/Ground of Being/The Universe) being somehow aware, and caring, about every sparrow (chickadee/nuthatch/titmouse) that falls. My hope in this bleak season is that She or He is mindful of those little birds, and of me and mine as well.