the weather people soothe us now with reports that it’s all of 9-without-a-minus-sign degrees. but the thermometer outside my kitchen window insists otherwise. it says 5, and not a micrometer higher. either way, that’s eons better than the -22, or 45 below with wind chill. and here along the windy shore of lake michigan, wind counts mightily. it always counts.
our house the other night was burping. or so it sounded. every once in a while through the night a thud arose from who knows where. sounded to me like things were crashing to the roof. i got up to check out the window, to see if i could see a falling something, to see if ice chunks were hurling toward the house. the next day’s news brought word that these ominous noises — these noises that had people rushing to their windows, to see if glass had shattered, limbs had fallen, or maybe stars had tumbled from the heavens — these noises were a phenomenon known as “frost quakes.” so defined as: “a seismic event that may be caused by a sudden cracking action in frozen soil or rock saturated with water or ice.” egad. yet another quirk to be added to the weather woes. count me among the ones who do not like “seismic events” in and under and all around my house.
at our seismically-burping house, as we whirled into the abyss of the polar vortex, we settled our worries on anyone or anything who might, for some godforsaken reason, be stuck outside. we worried mightily about the folks who sleep in tents under viaducts and along the banks of the chicago river, and in flimsy encampments near the railroad yards, in hollows of the city where the forgotten stake their claim in pockets of oblivion. we prayed that somehow someone might convince those folks to leave behind their propane tanks and blankets and the cardboard boxes they call home. and just for one night — or until the vortex whirled away — deign to climb aboard a warming bus, or a cot inside a shelter. dear God, please do not let there be a child out there, i whispered over and over.
closer to home — right outside our kitchen door, in fact — our heap of fears focused on the tiny feathered flocks who dart and flit all day, every day. we knew that we had blankets, and a fridge filled with clementines. and a tea kettle that could whistle on command. but what about the red birds? what about the little juncoes, those snow monks of the winter? and what about the sparrows, the unassuming brown birds whose chatter never stops.
if i could have, i would have opened wide the kitchen door, invited them all in. but i knew that was whimsy. pure wishful whimsy. as if a flock of cardinals would roost above our dinner plates, or huddle high up in the pantry. i was not alone in my worrying. the tall bespectacled fellow who shares this house, he’s the one who first named the little birds when we bowed our heads to pray before tuesday night’s dinner. he did the same on wednesday and thursday.
we could not for the life of us figure out how those tiny-footed creatures — the ones who weigh all of five aspirins or one and a half slices of bread (that’s 1.5 ounces or the same as a papa cardinal) — how in the world would those tiny wisps of heartbeat survive through the long dark arctic night?
it was an equation of survival stripped to its essence. it’s not every night we boil it down to life or death, just beyond our kitchen window. and hope against hope for life to be the victor.
i couldn’t bear to imagine the little things hovering, tucked away in some bough of some fir tree that hardly blocked the wind. i pictured tiny frozen red birds fallen to the snowdrifts by morning. i couldn’t sleep.
once the daylight came, once the sun against the snow made it hurt to stare into the glare, we kept watch anyway. nothing moved out there, save a snow-capped branch blowing in the wind. i’d trudged out early, dumped a can of seed — just in case. but nothing and no one budged. all day on the coldest day, the yard was still.
at last one chickadee appeared. darted toward the seed, nibbled, flitted off. but no one else. then nightfall came again. and dawn. and nothing. not a single bird.
and then, as i kept watch through the morning, as the bespectacled one peered from his upstairs window, at 10:57 yesterday morning, there it came: the flash of muted red that is mama cardinal. she clung to a branch not far from the feeder. and then, at last, she swooped in. as she pecked away at the sunflower seeds, along came her backup squad: one red bird, aka papa, and two more mamas.
there was jubilance in our kitchen. the mere shock of red against the white-on-grey tableau, it was victorious. nothing short of a death-defying feat. it was still, at that mid-day hour, -12 degrees. and yet, somehow, the little birds survived. had made it through the wind-whipping night, had endured a cold they’d never ever known, and tucked away in some unknown-to-us cove, employing unimaginable survival skills. we should show such grit. we too should defy the insurmountable when it’s heaped against us.
i stood in awe. the mysteries of the woodland escape and astonish me. the masterwork of creation is what floors me, over and over and over.
we’ve pummeled this holy earth, with our chimneys spewing smoke, and the poisons we’ve poured into the waters, and yet, on a polar vortex night, the papa cardinal clung on, he didn’t freeze to death. he doubled the air mass in between his feathers. he slowed his breath. and before the mercury climbed to zero, he flashed across the yard. the red flash, triumphant.
thank you, Great Protector. and hallelujah cardinals. and all who have survived.
what’s your survival story from this long and bitter week?
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.
I am now wondering what the weather might have been like when Emily penned one of the most endearing and famous of her poems. Thank you for caring for those creatures that bring joy and dreams to all of us.
so interesting to re-read, and read the whole, against this arctic blast. i know the first line and often drift off after there, i suppose. so thank you thank you for putting the whole of emily and her hope-filled bird before us here this morning.
i was wondering if i might dig up a bit of mathematics on the physiology of the bird. i am just soooooooo fascinated by how it is those tiny bits of creature manage to stay alive against the odds. there cannot be more than a thimble-full of blood coursing through those little hearts and vessels. perhaps i can find someone who knows……physiology endlessly fascinates me. how creation works…..xoxox
to answer my own worries about those birdie feet, here is a miraculous amazement. oh, dear God…..(and i mean that as a thank you prayer….)
Why Birds’ Feet Don’t Freeze. … Birds’ feet have a miraculous adaptation that keeps them from freezing. Rete mirabile — Latin for “wonderful net” — is a fine, netlike pattern of arteries that interweaves blood from a bird’s heart with the veins carrying cold blood from its feet and legs.
here’s more: (from the scientific research aggregator, ScienceDirect)
It is in the area of vascular thermoregulation that marine mammals (and cold weather birds) have evolved several unusual adaptations. The first of these is termed the rete mirabile, which is Latin for a “wonderful net.” This net, which is a counter-current heat exchanger (Scholander and Schevill, 1955) involves an intertwined network of veins and arteries such that the cold blood returning from the extremities in the veins runs next to the warm blood going out to extremities in the arteries. From the previous discussion on heat flow, it is easy to see how the heat flows from the arteries to the close-by veins thus tending to conserve the heat in the interior and cool the arterial blood going out to the colder regions of the body.
and even more. (wish i’d had more time to look all this up this morning, but perfectly happy to catalog it here).
so i’ve been poking around and seeing what i could learn about the hearts of birds, as that’s the part i worry about second-most (the feet i think i worry about the most. but, oh gosh, it’s hard to decide. i worry comprehensively…)
anyway, i said birds might only have a thimble-full of blood. i was wrong. the papa cardinal, for instance, has TWO thimbles full: approximately 4.2 grams or milliliters of blood, pumping through those uber-efficient hearts. birds usually have a blood volume of 1/10th of their body weight. a thimble holds a perfect 2.1 milliliters, according to those who measure these things.
and how fast does a bird’s heart pump? well, the American robin’s resting heart rate (so measured inside a darkened cage, once the bird settles) is a whopping 570 beats per minute. (our human heart clocks in at a mere 80 if we’re in pretty good to decent shape.)
consider me marveled…..
I have never had so many birds as I had the past 2 days, 40 sparrows and 15 doves at one time.I noticed they were huddled in the bushes close to the house.Perhaps it is warm there and out of the wind.Nature is amazing..Grammy
the wiser one has spoken. BGM is the one from whom i inherited my awe for all things feathered…..
can’t believe you counted 40 sparrows. that takes some serious patience…..
Wow! Thank you for the info on birds AND frost quakes. Several funny pics of you came to mind such as Amy Adams in Enchanted when she lets all the birds into the house. Stay warm!
wouldn’t it be grand if you could just open the back door, put out a pot of tea, and invite in all the flocks…..
My first wonder this morning was that my 17-year-old V-dub started after three nights of arctic blasts battering the 100-year-old (need I add unheated?) garage. My second was the sight of a male cardinal in the mountain ash across the alley, framed by the open garage door. As I let the car run, I watched him with thankfulness that he was out and about. I have worried much over the birds, especially the unloved pigeons.
Despite their hot, blood-vessel-rich red feet, they can lose toes if they freeze to where they are roosting. I’ve known a few one-footed pigeons who survived two years from first sighting. (From my observations, originally for the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology’s Project Pigeon Watch) I think urban pigeons live two years if they’re smart, three years if they’re lucky, compared to 18 or more as pets.)
A touching story of bird survival is of chickadee “65290” in Aldo Leopold’s Sand County Almanac.
And I wonder if the heavy slamming sounds I heard in the bathroom early yesterday morning (thought it was the kids downstairs destroying their toilet seat) were frost quakes. After six burst basement water pipes, our old building, sitting on the sands of the former Winona Beach in Uptown, doesn’t need to be shook to its foundation besides!
I hope all at the table are well, warm and weatherized!
love that you drive a “V-dub,” and love that you identify the mountain ash without blinking. i am off to check out the 65290 chickadee. hmmmmm…….
i hope the six burst pipes weren’t all courtesy of this latest polar vortex. i am still trying to thaw the one shower that is on the slow drip…….so far no bursting, though the basement is dripping as icicles drip onto the front stoop — a thru-line we’ve never been able to sufficiently plug……
found this lovely slide show, text from 65290 essay. the little chickadees’ wisdom, it seems, was his/her proclivity for detecting the direction of the wind, and making sure he roosted facing INTO it, not letting it come up from behind…..
enjoy the slides, and professor leopold: https://www.slideshare.net/Leopoldfoundation/65290-11517798
This is why I love bam and the table.
it’s why we love YOU!!!!
Barb, I think you might find Peter Wohlleben’s books very interesting. I am currently reading The Weather Detective.
Although he lives in Europe, I find it easy to think about my own back yard as I read this work. Today I learned that bees only leave the hive at temperatures above 54°. Then, when it gets warmer than 95°, they stay home.
They seem quite sensible to me!
oh, i love hearing about an author i don’t know. this sounds like the sort of science-y book i’d love to burrow into…..thank you much. and this: how oh how do the bees know the temperature? wisdom reigns…..
oh, gracious, here’s a wild thing! i just looked up Peter W, and lo and behold, i have his Hidden Life of Trees right on my writing desk!!! i didn’t recognize his name, though i immediately recognized the title. The Weather Detective sounds wonderful, and i see there is a new one, The Secret Wisdom of Nature, coming out in exactly a month!!! thank you so so much for highlighting this new trail of books. bless you.