A thoughtful essay from Albatrossity.
It’s sometimes hard to process our relationships with the natural world, and I was reminded of that, brutally, this week. The midsection of the continent has endured an intrusion of Arctic temperatures when the polar vortex weakened and then herniated. Here in my part of Flyover Country we had a week and a half of intermittent snow showers, steadily dropping temperatures, and cloud cover that eliminated our normal solar daytime heating cycle. We watched the thermometer as if it were an oracle, and it emitted increasingly ominous pronouncements.
All through the week the overnight lows crept ever lower, and the daytime highs never really lived up to that name. The birds in the neighborhood responded, as they usually do, by ramping up their feeding and foraging activities all week long. Seed-eating birds were happy to find the feeders, stocked with sunflower seeds and dried berries. Our five winter-resident woodpeckers gobbled down the suet. And the acres of buckbrush, cedar, and honeysuckle behind the house set the table for the frugivorous waxwings and thrushes.
We have a heated bird bath on the back deck that hosted ever-increasing flocks of robins and waxwings, as well as the occasional Hermit Thrush and Eastern Bluebird. Their honeysuckle-heavy diet was glaringly obvious, as piles of orange poo accumulated in rings around the water tub. We added a second water bowl; it immediately attracted customers and its own ring of poo.
For all the winters that we have lived in this house, we have had Hermit Thrushes as fellow travelers. We see them early in the morning at the bird bath, sporadically through the day, and at night occasionally spot one heading down below the deck, where we suspected it might be roosting in that relatively warmer microclimate. This year we had at least three, one with very dark breast spots and two with lighter spots. All three were frequent visitors at the bird bath, even scrapping with the much bigger robins for a space at the trough, as the week went on and the temperatures became more frightful. We hoped that they were getting enough to eat; we could provide water, but they were skeptical about the raisins and other dried fruit bits we put out for them. So the food they found on their own was the food they depended on.
The night of February 14-15 was the killer. On the deck our thermometer registered -14 F; the official temperature at the local airport about 4 miles away was -21 F. Dawn came, and I saw a couple of robins and one of the light-spotted Hermit Thrushes already at the bird bath, not drinking but simply warming up in that micro-space that was not -20. I was hopeful that they had made it through, and the forecast said that warmer temperatures were on the way.
But the day went on, and the numbers of robins dropped to 2 or 3 at a time (compared to 20 or 30 the day before), and no more Hermit Thrushes were to be seen. Same for the next day. They might have moved on (but to where?), and that is the story I kept telling myself.
Today, with outside temps in the mid-20s (double digits above zero!), Elizabeth investigated under the deck. The worst fears proved true. Huddled in dry leaves, against the side of the house, was a Hermit Thrush. It was the dark-spotted one, who had arrived in mid-November and cheered us nearly daily. Cold, stiff, and nearly weightless; it was feathers, skin, and bone but not much else.
This killing weather doubtless took many birds, and this was just one. But it was personal, and I felt it more keenly because of that. But I also understood, at a level slightly removed from the gut-wrenching sight of that pitiful carcass, that our fellow travelers on this planet are paying a very high price because of us. Our usurpation of spaces and resources makes it ever more difficult for other species to find space and resources. Despite all we tried to do to help this creature, and others like it, we (all of us) killed it.
Most of us have precious few tangible, emotional connections to the world around us these days, even though we depend on that world. The planet that provides food, water, shelter, and space to our fellow travelers does the same for us, but we’d rather not think about it too much. We’d prefer to think that we are special. Moments like this, where that dependence is intellectually and emotionally in-your-face obvious, are increasingly rare, and perhaps that makes them increasingly painful. This hurt.
One bird. What difference does that make?
A world of difference.