When the Birds Come Back

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all,
And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.
I’ve heard it in the chillest land,
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me. ~Emily Dickinson

“Where are the robins?” Mom asks mournfully, looking out the rainy window. The morning air is nearly silent, with hardly any birds singing. Spring has sprung, but where are our beloved birds?
Marking the return of our wild birds and the migrators to the farm is an annual event, with each species noted on the calendar alongside appointments and delivery routes. The swans and geese are often first, then the adorable juncos. And then there should be robins—hoards of them hopping over the grass and weathering the last of the spring snows. The old-timer’s saying is “three snows on the robin’s tail” (though some years we’ve seen five), but this year the snows so far had abated, the pussy willows had popped, and the spring peepers had begun their raucous chorus. And yet, only three robins had passed through, leaving after a couple of days for parts further north.
Then the sandhill cranes arrived, calling high above before circling down. They peruse the pigpens, looking for any spilled grain. As I pass by, they throw back their red-capped heads and call loudly, announcing my chore-time presence. I suspect it’s the return of Tristan and his lady, as they look at me expectantly, wondering where I’m hiding the chicken feed.
And still, no robins, and no red-winged blackbirds yet, calling their “a-la-scree” from the treetops.
“I’m afraid something happened to our birds,” Mom worries. “They should be here by now. Maybe that big snowstorm that went through further south was hard on them.”
What kind of a spring would it be without the bobbing worm-hunting robins and the treetop serenades of the redwing blackbirds? And then, finally just this week, as I was walking out to morning chores there came the calls. The ground was littered with hordes of pecking juncos, and in the trees were robins, redwing blackbirds, a pair of flycatchers, and even a Canada jay. It was as if they’d all come together at once, ready at last to bring the cheerful chorus of spring to the farm.
Our little seed feeder at Farmstead Creamery has now been hopping, as all the hungry migrators stop to fill their bellies. Two female red polls were especially piggish, even bullying the resident chickadees before heading on their way. Yesterday, a host of flickers spooked up from the yard, their white saddles flashing as they beat their dark wings.
How different now from the eerily silent mornings before the birds returned. It showcases the often fragile dance of nature. Bird populations are declining across the country, between the loss of habitat and the decline in insect populations due to human intervention. Insects are critical to feeding baby birds of all species, as well as some types of adult birds. Fortunately, it appears that our flocks were delayed by the weather and not lost entirely.
We can learn from these resilient birds who finally made it north. Even with the routines of our lives established and mapped over the generations, life storms can arise. With nature, there is always the element of the unpredictable. Springtime is most exemplary of this fickle temper. This reminds us to stay responsive in our own lives, rather than rigidly adhering to “how we’ve always done it” in the face of changing times.
Change is everywhere—perhaps one of the only constants. But too much change at once without enough adaptability can spell disaster. One of the results of climate change is alterations in the tracking of storms, such as the wintry episode that recently ravaged Texas. This doesn’t just effect Texas, as we can see in the delay of the return of our birds. We can choose responsibility and take action to help mitigate and reverse our alterations of the environment that are causing these changes. Individual as well as systemic choices matter.
When you see the birds in spring, do you feel hope? A recent study found direct correlation to the number of bird species in one’s life and one’s level of happiness. I know that they bring me joy each morning as they sing in the day. They can teach us to remain responsive in the face of change as well as be responsible with our relationship to nature. Which birds have visited you this week? See you down on the farm sometime.