Outside, beyond the Christmas lights, the cookies and fireside snacks, the long season of short days sets in. Leaves mat and blacken the ground, stars appear before bedtime, and frost etches bent grass in the fields. It’s a hungry time too—the easy seeds are gone, the berries a summer memory. Even the rosehips are blown, and the few remaining apples lie shredded in the weeds along the drive. I suppose birds make their peace with the season and its lean times, although more of their larder vanishes, irreplaceably, every year, pushed to the margins, paved or ploughed: and every year, there is less to lose. The geese at any rate are happy with the new grass and our penchant for golf courses and monoculture. But others, like those around our house, feed with a greater intensity this time of year, and have dropped all pretense; they wait impatiently at first light on low branches for me to hang the suet or replenish the sunflower seeds. The hawks know this too and pluck the unwary in mid-air, flying from behind the porch pillars. We have one especially bold and handsome Cooper’s hawk who sits on a post by the porch scanning the undergrowth for terrified towhees. But hummingbirds are the boldest (why don’t they go somewhere with flowers?), perhaps feeling the sharpest pinch. Especially on frosty mornings, when it’s scarcely light enough to tell one tree from its neighbor they zip out as I hang their nectar, and I find myself eye to eye with a pair of fearless Anna’s clicking impatiently for me to finish. It’s not a bad way to start the day.
The season also draws others to the house, four-footed and furry—sometime between four or five yesterday in the morning last week we woke to serious chicken noise—everyone raising a ruckus. In summer, that can mean pretty much anything, but in winter it only means no good. We’d more or less decided to get out of the boutique chicken business (we have only a few) and turn their shed into a greenhouse once they were gone. And it looked like that process was beginning, so I was less than enthusiastic about defending our Aracanas. Especially at four o’clock on a very dark and foggy night. But defend I did, or tried. Their shed was empty when I stumbled out to it—one chicken hunkered in the corner of the yard, none others to be seen, and piles of feathers everywhere. After futilely poking around for a while, I walked out into the wetland, switched off my light, and listened. I’m not normally out there at that hour—the fog was so thick you felt you were inside it. No lights, not even on Neabeck Hill across the field, and looking back toward the house there was only a sickly glow from our neighbor’s mercury vapor ‘security’ light (which, I’m sure, is visible from space). As I grew accustomed to standing there, noises returned—a few bird calls, something mechanical out on the highway. When a determined rustling approached, I switched on my light, thinking it was a lost chicken and found myself looking at two deer, about twenty feet away, gazing at me as if a man with a shotgun and a flashlight were the most ordinary of things to run across in a field on a predawn morning. I tried my best coyote howl but they remained unimpressed, lowered their heads, and kept searching for something to eat. Lean times indeed.