The birds at the feeders were not just hungry. They plainly were desperate. Snow covered everything. No fallen seed or shrunken berry was to be found.
In a frantic multitude they began arriving at first light, swarming to the tubes of fine grain and Niger seed and cakes of suet that hang in the gnarled redbud tree just outside the breakfast room window.
The greatest numbers were of sparrows and slate-backed juncos with their bright white breasts, now and then a nimble little house wren among them, clinging — sometimes a dozen at once — to the perches on the feeders.
Occasionally some displaced by the crowding would flutter down to join the mourning doves, prospecting for spillage on the ground.
The flicker with his spotted breast and the downy woodpecker with a tiny cap of red have the suet largely to themselves. Now and then a grackle tries to poach, but being overlarge and not so adept at perching, he loses his grip and joins the scavengers below.
One in a while a hen cardinal appears, and occasionally an aggressive blue jay, whose strident nature temporarily empties the restaurant. But by and large the atmosphere is one of civility and consideration.
Not surprisingly, no robins are to be seen. They had the good sense to migrate south before the storms blew in. It will be a while before duty calls them back to announce the spring.
I’ve no idea where any urban hawks go for cover when the world turns frigid and white. But they’re the killers in the crowd, and mercifully they’ve had the courtesy to let the smaller citizens take nourishment in safety. And they never have cause to worry if they’ll get their rations.
In the bitter dawn as I sat to write this — even before the first flake had fallen — my wife already had been out in boots and heavy coat to fetch the morning paper and, more important, to be sure all the feeders were brimming full.
In fact, I’d scarcely made my way down from the bedroom when she announced that breakfast was on.
I don’t know how the feathered citizens in other neighborhoods have fared during this nasty spell of weather. All I can say is if you’re a hungry bird in winter, in search of your day’s first meal, my advice is to look for the house of a man who’s married well.