The darkest day of the year has come and gone. From now on it’s a slow, teasing progression toward spring and glorious sun-filled days. But even the dark days bring their own pleasures.
Every year in early December, something wonderful happens in our back garden. The wagtails return! We’ve had a pair of pied wagtails over-wintering with us for the past four years now. I’d like to think they come because they’ve developed a warm spot in their little birdie hearts for us, but I know they really come for the shredded cheese.
Wagtails are insectivores, and these two lovelies, whether they are the original pair who first visited us on that dreadful winter four years ago or some of their descendants, have probably come down from Scandinavia to winter here in South England. They come here because there are certain kinds of insects that survive in the moss on the roofs of the houses and every time the temperature warms slightly, they come out briefly. It’s a day to day existence for the wagtails, and I can’t imagine how any of them actually survive, so I put out shredded cheese, which they love.
I associate Christmas with a huge influx of birds in our back garden, and it’s a time when I feel closer them and am more sensitive to their needs. Though food is the obvious need – fat balls for the general population, mixed seeds and nuts for the tits and doves, currants for the blackbirds and of course shredded cheese for the wagtails (though the starlings and the magpies also love the cheese and currants) the big draw during the coldest days of winter is the birdbaths. People might not realise birds have no source of fresh water when everything is frozen. Imagine nothing to drink when the weather is cold, no place to bathe.
Every morning, as soon as it’s light enough to see, we go out and fill all the feeders, spread currants and cheese for the blackbird and the wagtails and then we tend to the two birdbaths, clearing out the ice with hot water. When that’s done we go in to have our own breakfast. Our dining table is in front of sliding glass doors that look out into the back garden, so every morning during the bleakest days of winter, we are rewarded with an feeding frenzy and a pool party.
We live in a wonderful symbiosis with our avian friends. We keep food and water available for them throughout the coldest darkest times and in turn we’re rewarded with a close-up and personal view of the natural world we wouldn’t otherwise get. The blackbird perches on the retaining wall and stares in the window at us if there are no currants for him. The wagtails show up out of nowhere when they hear us filling feeders. They’ve learned there’ll be cheese.
Through December, we’re all waiting for the daylight, waiting for the sun to return. We’re all waiting and longing for light and warmth and new beginnings. Through those darkest months, I marvel at how the birds survive the bleak harsh days when there seems to be nothing for them to eat, nothing for them to drink. I know that lots of them don’t survive. I know that when the temperature dips below zero, whether or not they survive the night can depend upon how much they’ve been able to forage the day before. The difference between survival and death is such a fine line. And every year I’m astounded and amazed by their tenacity, by their will to survive the dark days.
In the spring, the wagtails go back to Scandinavia to breed and the bird population in our back garden changes, and the dynamic changes. We get fledgling starlings and blackbirds and the whole garden becomes a nursery for the next generation. But there’s something magical about those winter months, the dark cold days, the times when the closeness I feel is a deep admiration for the ebb and flow, for the push to hang on one more season, for the deep powerful urge to survive and bring forth the next generation. I watch the starlings fluttering in wild abandon in the birdbaths, the water freezing on the edges even as they bathe. I watch the wagtails and the blackbirds treading frozen ground, eating cheese and currants, their feathers fluffed to nearly twice their body size to keep warm, and I feel that somehow, I’ve become a part of something so much greater than myself and my little understanding of the world. This is the gift I receive every year in the dead of winter, and it’s a gift that I treasure long after the sun has returned and the Dawn Chorus has begun in earnest and the wagtails have flown north.
Happy Solstice, everyone! May all the gifts you give and receive be gifts that touch the heart.