When I woke up at 7:30 this morning, my outdoor thermometer reported a stingy three degrees outside. However, for the first time yesterday, it was clear that it’s no longer December, when there is simply no light at the end of the tunnel. Sure, the sun is getting stronger. But there is now a more abrupt and definitive sign that winter is coming to an end: I heard bird-song.
I never realize how much I miss the birds until they return again in late winter. It doesn’t matter that I know nothing about birds. They are really important to my experience of the garden.
Of course by now, everybody has heard that migratory songbird populations are declining, though I can’t say I perceive it in my part of the world. The National Audubon Society is amazingly frank about what’s causing the problem: too many damned people in the world. Its "public policy fact sheet" on the decline of neotropical migratory birds actually includes these lines: "Over one billion teenagers are entering their most critical reproductive years. If these teenagers dramatically reduce their fertility, world population could stabilize by 2050 at far less than 12 billion." Those Audubons may be correct in the most global sense, but there’s nonetheless something disturbing about the straight line they draw: If you want to save the songbirds, don’t have babies.
I own 15 acres in the country that are stuffed with birds. My husband and I were only able to buy a weekend place in the country because apparently not everyone wants 15 acres of swampland, silly them, and it was cheap. I love my little landscape. We have a pair of insignificant streams, a lot of boggy ground that will suck the clogs off your feet, and a shallow pond. We’re also on a really high, underpopulated road that, except for my low-lying and super-fertile place, is mostly slate ledge, so the farmers fled long ago. As a result, the land around us is fairly wild.
The birds and I are in complete agreement: The place is heaven. Great blue herons land on my pond. There are always loads of hawks circling overhead, policing my vegetable garden. Smaller birds camp out on the arches in the garden, looking for caterpillars and beetles and staying alert for the moment any berry or grape is ripe. (This year, netting.) The reeds in front of my house are always so full of milling birds, they’re like flies on a pale horse. Sometimes, the maple tree near the house fills up with so many birds, it’s hard to have a conversation inside.
This din makes the humans in the scene feel small and insignificant, and somehow that’s very reassuring. I like to think that we haven’t completely imposed our lousy taste and rapacious personalities on every corner of the earth. Bird-song is the most beautiful sound in the world–with the possible exception of frog-song. But that’s a subject for another post.