We’d spent an hour together so far, and for the first time all day, every single fourth grader was engaged. They’re wide-eyed and squirming on their benches. All 20 of us were pointing.
It’s mid-April, there’s an inch of snow on the ground, and we’re on a hike down to the river. We took breaks often along the way for learning activities and for rest. Our stop this time was at Chickadee Central. The people-shaped benches there surround a birdfeeder. The place is designed so birds will come close, even when people are nearby, and sometimes the birds will even eat out of students’ hands. This time I had no birdseed, but I hoped the birds would still come close. We could listen to them and perhaps see a few.
Once everyone was seated and had a blank paper in front of them, I gave the instructions.
“We’re trying to find how many birds are here and where they are. If you hear a bird in front of you, try to imagine how far away it is. It’s important to be quiet so we can find more birds. If you see a bird, don’t talk. Point at it.”
A few students looked at their paper and concentrated, trying to hear where the birds were coming from. But then a Black-capped Chickadee swooped low over a boy in a green hat. The boy jumped and almost slid off his bench. The bird landed at the feeder.
Everyone pointed at the bird.
The boy in the green hat laughed.
The girl sitting next to me, the one who’d been telling me about her life for most of the past hour, leaned forward. “Ssshhhhh!”
The bird flew away.
We started looking in the trees around us for other birds. There was a bird in every tree. Each student pointed in a different direction. A small girl, one who’d whispered her name three times before I understood, pointed across the circle and smiled as another bird swooped into the feeder. The boy in the green hat knelt on his bench to point at a bird above his friend sitting four students over. Birds took turns landing on twigs within two feet of students, darting toward the feeder for seeds, not caring that the fourth graders squirmed and pointed.
With an inch of snow, the birds were hungry. And since I hiked with the fourth graders, we’ve had two more snowstorms and an additional foot of snow. It is Minnesota, but it’s no longer winter. Birds had already started migrating, mating, and claiming nesting territories. And while the chickadees know how to handle the snow, the other birds have to make do.
Two weekends ago robins covered the yard, ears to the grass, seeking worms. They’ve moved north and the sparrows have arrived just in time for our snowstorm last weekend.
For an hour last Saturday, a small, determined Fox Sparrow stayed close to a building, repeatedly shoveling snow with its clawed feet. Each foot would move a small scoop of snow and fling it out of the way. Then it would check the depth, plunging its face into the snow. Within fifteen minutes it had a dug-out four inches in diameter and four inches deep. It had reached grass. Then it hunted for a few seeds, or perhaps an insect of some sort. The hunt lasted for a few moments, and then the sparrow moved onto another snowbank and repeated the shoveling process.
Other sparrows adopted the same strategy. Sparrows lined the edge of the building where the snow was shallower. They dug holes in the snow until the holes became trenches, and occasionally hit the building with their wings while they worked. Thud. Thud. Thunk.
The birds were doing their best.
And yet this is the snowiest April on record. What if their best is not enough?
A few days later it snowed again. We filled the birdfeeders in the morning. By noon they were empty.
So we filled them again.
What can you do to help birds survive in the midst of such a snowy and rough-weathered spring?
- Put out birdfeeders. Be prepared to fill them daily.
- If the ground in covered in snow, shovel enough for them to access the bare ground.
- Collect brush to make small shelters for birds to escape the wind.
- Set out dried mealworms, berries, or suet for birds which don’t eat seed (such as robins).