The Snow birds

We become complacent, sometimes, about living in comfort and security, but reminders of our fragility eventually come along. This time, February grabbed us by the throat, wrapping humans and wildlife alike in arctic cold. Wind and blowing snow sucked warmth from living bodies, until survival became a question not just for animals but sometimes for humans, too. The question for every living thing was this: Can I shake off the icy vampire pulling warmth out of me, or will this end my life? The birds around my back yard feeder have to confront this question every winter, at least during a cold front or two. We humans, surrounded by the built world of houses and heaters, usually do not even consider it.

There are states where winter routinely pushes temperatures down to zero degrees, but Texas is not one of them. As this year began, the weather system over the arctic did not play nice, and as a result the swirling bitterly cold air near the north pole wobbled badly and was pushed down into Texas where it should not go. After several days when the high temperatures mostly were in the 20s, Valentine’s Day brought snow in north Texas. The next day the temperatures stayed in the teens, and Monday night the low was variously reported as -2 degrees, zero, or perhaps one degree. If we ventured outside, frostbite could come in as little as fifteen minutes, we were told. 

Pine Siskins

The more our world was swallowed up in bitter cold and blowing snow, the more urgently the birds mobbed the feeders. Northern Cardinals appeared, with flocks of Pine Siskins and Yellow-rumped Warblers. Along the ground and in low tree branches, they were joined by Dark-eyed Juncos, the “snow birds.” They breed in Alaska and Canada, but migrate southward in winter, and on Valentine’s Day they no doubt wondered if they had migrated far enough.

The wind blew both snow and birds, but the juncos flew where they would, regardless of the wind. The flight skills of Pine Siskins and warblers allowed them to find a spot on the feeder, correct for a quick change in the wind, and find a perch. Through the snowflakes I watched them reach into the feeder to get seed, look around in quick, vigilant movements as they processed and swallowed the grain, and go in for more. Bird faces are not good at conveying emotion; a rigid bill cannot convey a smile or a grimace, and their little dark eyes seemed expressionless as they fought to get enough food to sustain the little metabolic engines generating heat under those feathers. What was their state of mind? Did those quick movements reflect urgency and anxiety, or just a bird doing what its small body does to get by? A friend described what I was seeing this way: “They have to keep moving in this cold – constantly moving, because if they stop, they die.” 

Two snow birds (juncos) foraging on the ground as snow begins

I stood in my kitchen, looking out at this and bringing the full force of my anthropomorphic imagination to what I was seeing. What would it be like to be that bird? The bitter cold would be miserable in a tiny body like that, and every decision carries the weight of life and death. One misstep would allow a predator to take you; failing to find enough food would sap your energy, bring hypothermia and then oblivion. What happens at night? What refuge is there for a fragile thing with feathers, other than the crook of a tree branch or a juniper’s evergreen bough to slow the wind? The depths of the dark night, when the deepest cold arrives and there is no acrobatic exertion to build heat and no food to fuel it, that seems like the most lonely and desperate time. Thank God for the shelter that I had, the light and heat from the gadgets of the built world that kept me from experiencing such a cruel night.

Was this hypocrisy? How many times have I complained about our over-involvement with our gadgets and our obsession with adding to the built world. If I get an afternoon on the prairie, I am in love with the grasses and do not want to return to the world of highways and towns. Spending the day in the mountains makes me long for a shack tucked away on a meadow on the lower slopes, to live among the trees and the quiet. Should this storm chase me back to my co-dependence with the heater and running water? The polar vortex was a reminder that I may love wild places but I am poorly adapted to live in them. On a bright spring day or a mild and contemplative autumn evening, I am in heaven. I can cope with summer heat for the most part, and given a good coat, winter days can be fine. Weeks like this one, though, with frostbite waiting outside the door, make me want a good shelter and a working heater.

The rest of Texas wanted a good shelter and a working heater, too. As the weekend progressed the announcements came that Texas’ electricity grid was becoming overwhelmed and rolling blackouts would begin. For most people, when the blackouts came, they stayed. Just as record low temperatures and the state’s first-ever wind chill warning were on the way, lights were going out in apartments and homes, and heaters went cold. Birds continued to fly from place to place, searching for berries, seeds, and bird feeders, while humans huddled together under blankets. The built world was failing us. Stories emerged of people dying of carbon monoxide poisoning, running cars and camp stoves and anything that might generate some heat. A man who was dependent on bottled oxygen was found dead, forced outside to use a spare bottle in his truck. Some broke up furniture to burn, and even added their child’s wooden blocks to the flames.  

The water stopped flowing at our house on Saturday, in time for us to get out and buy bottled water before freezing rain made travel too dangerous. The water came back on later that day, and we were fortunate that it stayed on, except for an interruption a few days later. Many people were unlucky. The parts of the built world having to do with water treatment and delivery froze and failed in many places, and so people went without water. And they went without power and heat. We have wrapped ourselves in mechanisms and gadgets that become our life support system. We expect running water, we expect to be protected from extremes of temperature, and the required gadgets run mostly in the background so that we do not think about them. When they fail, not just for one household but for whole communities and regions, it is a crisis.

I stood at our window and watched the birds, waiting for the power to fail. Mindfulness helped bring me back to this moment, in which I was there in a warm house looking at the outside world while drinking a cup of coffee. I tried to stay in the present and not overwhelm my awareness with the possibility that the house could become dark and freezing, with snow-packed streets trapping us. How would we fare? It seemed unlikely we would meet the cold with the same energy and resilience I witnessed in the Dark-eyed Juncos foraging in the snow. I opened the back door to toss another handful of peanuts out for the Blue Jays. It was the sort of cold we describe as “biting,” for the sharp, painful sensation it brings to our skin. I could stand out there dressed as I was, but for how long before I got that other kind of bite when skin and tissues start to freeze? Meanwhile, word had gotten around to the jays, and they arrived soon after the door was shut. One or two came to the Sweetgum tree, carefully assessing the situation and then flying down to pick up a peanut and even try for a second before figuring out that they were too big. Another perched on the deck and dropped down for his prize. As I peeked out the window, he cocked his head to look at me, took his peanut, and was gone. Did his feathers protect him from frostbite, and his activity keep the hypothermia away? A couple of days before, I worried about how the birds would survive the storm; now the birds seemed like role models for how to get through it.

When our son was able to get around on relatively level streets, we had him and some of his friends over to warm up, shower, and have something to eat and drink. It was like celebrating our getting this far through the storm, by offering comfort and playing some Uno or Scrabble. When we get through it, we get through it together. When I watched the birds outside, it was my inability to see this empathy and connection that cast the biggest shadow on what I saw. For us, in our human skin, the sense that others can feel what we are feeling and will stand with us to face whatever comes – that is as crucial as oxygen. Without it, we are lost and wandering in darkness. And so, on some level I could not put into words, my perception was that the snow birds were also lost. 

That is the danger of anthropomorphizing, of assigning human qualities where they are unwarranted. When birds connect, it need not look like human connection, and so we may fail to recognize it. Ravens, crows, and others in the corvid clan (like our Blue Jays) have complicated social relationships and even recognize some familiar humans. Black vultures care for their young past the point where the youngster has fledged. Chickadees have a syntax to their calls that allows for basic communication among their flock. I am not suggesting that birds have social relationships with the same depth and complexity that we do. I expect that the birds at my feeder may have social relationships greater than I could discern, and also that those relationships would be different than those of humans. Birds have the brains that they are built to have; their brains do amazing things that our brains cannot, just as they cannot do some things that ours can.

White-winged Doves

By Thursday the 18th, the sun was out for a time and the afternoon high temperature reached the freezing mark. It felt like the storm was beginning to fade, but much damage had been done. A friend posted a photo of an Eastern Bluebird lying dead in the snow, its efforts to stay alive having failed. In our yard, White-winged Doves had gathered under one of the feeders to forage for any seed that had spilled from above. Sometimes they quietly hunkered down in the snow, keeping a low profile against the wind. And one of them stayed too long, not foraging and not reacting when other birds landed nearby. I don’t know how long the dove stayed motionless, waiting for the end, maybe trying to hold on, and then willing or not, surrendering its life.

I imagine that there are lonelier deaths. Other birds continued to come and go, including other White-winged Doves. I’d like to think that as the world dimmed, the dove noticed familiar faces, and even as the snow and ice drained the life from her body, she wondered if she was just resting among friends, preparing to fly one more time.

The Undertaker’s Community Picnic

It was Monday afternoon, February 8th. The hours of broken clouds and sunshine were ticking away, and I made it to Fort Worth Nature Center & Refuge around 3:00pm. Faced with an array of good spots to choose from, I decided to walk the Cross Timbers Trail, which initially tracks the Trinity River before breaking away back into the woodland. I crossed the little bridge where the marsh reaches the river and kept going north. 

Bottomland at the refuge

Along this stretch of river, the trail is at the top of a small levee, with some bottomland habitat to the west. Some of the huge Cottonwood and other trees are wrapped in climbing vines as big as your arm, crisscrossing the trunk and reaching high into the tree canopy to claim their share of sunlight. On the other side of the trail is the river, with forest beyond it. 

The east bank of the river was the site of a community picnic. Some of the participants watched from up in the trees while others shared the bounty on the ground. All were arrayed in black, a solemn picnic resembling a funeral gathering. Two of the black figures on the ground were focused on a small patch of two-toned fur that might have been the last earthly remains of a raccoon. This was a gathering in which the undertakers eat the dead. 

Black Vulture, warming its wings in the sun

These were Black Vultures, and they almost completely live up to their name. Even their bare heads are black, unlike the red heads of the slightly larger Turkey Vultures. A couple of the birds in today’s gathering stretched their wings to their full three- or four-foot reach, gathering the sun’s warmth. Those outstretched wings revealed six slightly dark-edged white feathers at the end of each wing, those first primary feathers like pale fingertips on a black bird. You can see them in flight, like a vague white spot on each black wing.

These are said to be very social birds, staying with mates for years and taking care of young for months after they fledge. They roost in community groups and those who have not found food can follow roost mates back to carrion. To quote Bruce Springsteen, “We take care of our own.” It’s family values with an aggressive tribal streak, as groups of Black Vultures are said to descend on a carcass and drive the Turkey Vultures back while they eat their fill. 

I walked on down the trail, seeing plenty of other birds. American Robins were searching for food on the woodland floor and flying up to low perches as I walked through. I could hear calls of Northern Cardinals periodically as males gear up for the coming spring. 

More bottomland

As the trail turned away from the river, it bordered a low area where water can drain toward the river, although at present it is all but dry. On the other side the land rises into Cross Timbers woodland. At the edge of the trail, two trees grew together in what looked like an embrace, one a Hackberry and the other a different kind of tree. They were entwined and seemed to be physically connected, two joined into one. 

The trees’ embrace

I soon had to turn around in order to get back before the refuge closed, and the clouds seemed a little heavier. Along the river, the late afternoon sun was shining so as to light up the bigger trees from a low angle. At one magical point, the sunlight made the top branches of the tallest trees glow, and against the darker blue-gray of the clouds behind them, those small curving branches were like silver filigree against the sky. The clouds shifted, obscuring the sun and the moment was gone. The experience stuck with me, one of thousands of such moments at this wonderful place.

A moment of sunshine

As I passed the site of the picnic, a few of the undertakers remained. I suppose virtually all of the banquet was gone, or at least I could see little of it. The vultures had done their job well, helping to return the dead back to the soil from which they came. 

the Acrobatic Flight of “Butter-Butts”

Yellow-rumped Warbler in Dallas County (photo by Meghan Cassidy)

Yesterday was sunny and clear, and Southwest Nature Preserve was the right place to take a walk. Its 52 acres are hemmed in by a major freeway and suburban development, and many visitors walk its trails and drop fishing lines into its waters. Despite all that, it’s a pretty resilient little remainder of the oak woodlands and sandstone that are the calling cards of the Eastern Cross Timbers.

There’s something about winter-bare oak woodlands, with the sun shining through branches and lighting up the layer of leaves on the ground. And ponds, with clear water shading into a deeper gloom with aquatic plants and the waterlogged wood of fallen branches, hidden in the dark. Depending on where you stand, the pond’s surface may be a sapphire reflection of sunlight, and the surface may have shifting rough patches where cold winter breezes blow across it. Southwest Nature Preserve has those things. 

The north pond

It also has birds, and this winter there have been a lot of them. I have paid better attention, or this has been a season with good bird numbers and diversity, or both. And as a result, I’ve learned more about them this year, although I’m no expert. I’m also better able to put aside the old herpetologist’s habit of active searching. Instead of staying on the move, I can sit and blend in with the habitat for a while. Mindfulness and advancing age have helped with that.

I visited the smallest pond, expecting a little dried mud bowl because of the very dry conditions. Instead, it had several inches of clear water. As I watched, several small nondescript birds took turns flying out over the water. Often one of them would fly into the breeze and momentarily be held there, fifteen feet above the water, until it turned and in a ball of wind-splayed feathers it was pushed back to a nearby tree. 

I sat on the banks of the pond for a while, watching these birds and listening to their calls back and forth: a single “cheet” repeated frequently. In my binoculars I would see gray-brown on the head and wings, with white and dark wing bars, and then that little patch of yellow on the side of the body. When one perched on a nearby twig, the binoculars showed a highlighter-yellow patch of feathers on the rump, more than justifying the name “butter-butt” that some birders give them. More properly, they are Yellow-rumped Warblers.

Yellow-rumped Warbler half-hidden in vegetation

As I watched, my naturalist’s reasoning suspected that they were catching insects too small for me to see. I imagined them to be having fun, as if their forays out over the water might start with a call to their neighbor to “watch this!” Sometimes they found a place to perch very close to the surface of the pond, but mostly they flew out above the water and returned to the winter-dry stalks of vegetation or up into the branches of an oak. A later check with some birding sources, including Cornell’s All About Birds site, seemed to confirm that their flight would have been in pursuit of insects. I don’t think this negates my suspicion that they were enjoying themselves.

Red-eared Slider, basking at one of the ponds

There were other things to see on this sunny afternoon. In an adjacent pond, a male Red-eared Slider was basking on a log at the water’s edge, across from the fishing pier that extends out over part of the pond. He was unconcerned about my photographing him. In warmer circumstances, these turtles are shy and quick to drop into the water, but this guy was unwilling to give up the bright sunshine of a cool winter day.


Nearby, a couple of pairs of Mallards were cruising across the surface of a small pool, periodically going “tail-up” to dabble through the material along the bottom and extract whatever was good to eat. In contrast, there was no activity on the surface of the north pond, which often has its share of ducks and turtles. Today not even the cricket frogs were out, despite plenty of sunshine along the northeast banks of the pond.

It was a good day to wander along the ponds of the preserve and up over the ridge and through the woods. I learned more about its birds today and got to visit with the willows and oaks and pay my respects to the boulders and grasses. 

Late afternoon on the trail