Rounding the house's corner like a flurry of wind-blown leaves, our little squadron of sparrows streaks across an open area, then take up position among the lower branches of a holly hedge at the open area's perimeter. The arrival of our birds hardly goes unnoticed. An up-tight Blue Jay in a nearby oak tree, worrying about incoming hawks, first flashes its wings hysterically, then, seeing that it's only sparrows, indignantly raises its crest, calls sharply, and preens its wing feathers in disgust. A high-strung squirrel in the open area, at first thinking the stir might be the neighborhood dog making one of his occasional raids, in a panic rushes to its "safe place" on a maple- tree's trunk, then hangs anxiously flicking its tail above it. Once everyone has calmed down a bit, they all return to their routines.
Among the holly hedge's lower branches, each of our birds finds a perch where it can see the whole open area. They've often seen the view before, for this open backyard is famous among local birds and squirrels for always offering food. The people living here, the Alexanders, enjoy watching from the windows as local wildlife visits their feeders and birdbath.
One feeder in the Alexanders' backyard, the one that's just a flat tray nailed atop a pole, offers table scraps; this morning a gray, long-tailed Mockingbird perches there pecking at a stale hamburger bun. The second feeder is a store- bought one shaped like a miniature barn; through its two, clear-plastic windows you see the birdseed inside it. Right now three goldfinches are perched there. They pick out their favorite seeds, then knock the rest onto the ground below. Down below, a squirrel, a Cardinal, and four Dark-eyed Juncos are more than happy to receive the goldfinches' rejected shower of seeds.
Like the juncos, House Sparrows like eating on the ground much more than up in the trees. Therefore, as our seven heroes watch from their perches among the holly hedge's lower branches, it's the seed-flecked ground below this second feeder that attracts them.
However, for the moment they do not fly there. They just perch there waiting, anxiously watching, watching, watching...
Right now, inside each of our sparrows there is a kind of debate going on. One side of the argument says, "We're too hungry to just sit here doing nothing! Beneath that feeder, the squirrel, the cardinal and some juncos eat the seeds we need to eat. Therefore, let's rush into the open area right now and gorge ourselves."
But the debate's other side says, "In the same way that right now we hide in the shadows of this holly hedge's lower branches, so can the cat hide; in the open space we'll be too vulnerable to sneak attack. For the moment we must wait and watch, wait and watch, making sure the cat isn't lurking nearby."
Slowly the fear diminishes and the hunger increases to the point that one House Sparrow -- her name is Yellow Ribbon -- can wait no longer. Without a peep she glides onto the ground beneath the second feeder and begins pecking millet seed. Quickly she is joined by Cat Chaser, Old Bird, and the others of her flock.
Almost as soon as our birds alight, snowflakes begin gently descending through the calm morning air, looking like enormous, widely spaced, brilliantly white and fluffy goose feathers. The sparrows simply ignore them, though sometimes a big flake shatters atop a bird's head, showering eyes and beaks with icy cascades of shattered crystals.
But the morning air doesn't stay calm for long. Much sooner than any of our birds would wish, the wind picks up and the snowflakes grow smaller and more numerous. For a while it seems that we'll have just a regular snow, so the sparrows and the squirrel and all the other birds just keep on eating.
However, now the wind grows into a gale, and the snowfall becomes a white deluge of stinging, icy pellets showering onto the ground. Seeds on the ground are being covered up as the ground turns white. The wind roars through the trees, moving whole branches as if invisible hands shook them; the million million falling ice pellets make a hissing sound as they streak through the air, then bounce off the ground. Among the humans in the surrounding town, excited announcers on TV report that the airport is canceling flights, schools are sending home kids who just got there, and all across town police-car and ambulance sirens scream and blue and red emergency lights flash.
However, the creatures at the Alexanders' feeding stations keep on eating, even as snow makes finding the food harder and harder.
So busy, so busy, so busy is every creature in the feeding station today. Scratch and peck, scratch and peck... knock away snow and scratch and peck some more...
The squirrel is the first to surrender. It climbs up the maple's trunk and slinks back toward its cozy den-tree. However, most of the birds stay, scratching and pecking, scratching and pecking...
No one has time to make the emergency quer-quer call. Cat Chaser cries a loud cheep! but it's too late to warn anyone. This isn't the first time the Kestrel with its curved-back wings, hooked beak and razor-sharp talons has ventured into the feeding station. Once, it flew away with a junco dangling from its talons...
However, today, like most other days, the Kestrel has captured no one. Once again it will have to take its meal someplace else.
For long minutes after the attack, around the feeders and birdbath, as snow falls and falls, and wind roars through the trees, not a single bird of any kind moves or makes a cheep. Inside the holly hedge our sparrows perch like statues carved of brown and gray wood, just letting the icy wind stream around them, and the snow pellets shower and bounce among the holly's glossy, evergreen leaves.
Eventually Cat Chaser chirp-calls from his bush's lower branches. Then a relieved-sounding chirp-call replies from nearby, and Yellow Ribbon nervously flits to perch beside Cat Chaser. From across the feeding area come sailing Missing Toe and Old Bird. One by one, from other well protected spots, all the other House Sparrows emerge. Soon most are chirp-calling, preening their feathers, and rubbing their beaks on the holly bush's stems. What else can they do? No one dares return to the open ground.
However, after ten minutes the sparrows do return to the ground, and so do most of the other birds. In the end, hunger almost always wins over fear.
That night our seven House Sparrows roost deep inside the ivy clinging to the south wall of Whitestone Hall at the local college. The snowstorm has moved through the area leaving behind a city whose streets are clogged with snow, and a night sky that is crystal-clear, filled with twinkling stars, and so cold that just breathing the air almost hurts.
And deep inside the ivy, and inside each of our seven sparrows, there glows a seed-fed warmth that is nothing less than a gift from a certain family who makes a hobby of feeding the local wildlife.
Continue to FEBRUARY