February 5, 2021
By Rick Wright
I love snow—or at least I used to, back in those long-ago days when the promise of a blizzard meant the thrilling possibility of a day off for sledding, or at least the exciting certainty of tromping through the wind and the drifts on the way to and from school. As I look back over the years (decades!), I suspect that even in eastern Nebraska in the 70s we didn’t get really big snows quite as often as my childhood memories insist, but still I remember times when we could walk atop the drifts over the chain link into the neighbor’s yard, or when the littlest members of the family had to be yanked out of the deep spots, leaving tiny boots and socks behind until we could get a scoop shovel to retrieve them. I even recall heroic trips on foot to the grocery store dragging a sled for our purchases, though I have to wonder today if we didn’t do it just so we could say we had.
The old folks (all of them, of course, younger then than I am now) in the family grew more circumspect when the skies turned gray and the wind turned cold. We children, catching the whiff of freedom that changing weather always brought, had only the dimmest understanding that snow could mean anything other than a day’s frolic: we put our elders’ sour mood down to the atrophying of their pleasure faculty, a phenomenon that would, we supposed, inevitably overtake everyone—except for, magically, us. Only much later did I learn that the grownups’ dour approach to snow was not just due to worries about broken pipes or dead car batteries; it traced, in part, and perhaps not always consciously, to a sad memory then still not much more than a century old, the December 1864 snowstorm that took the life of a poor Cass County farmer just a few months before the birth of his son, my great-great-grandfather.
We children knew none of that. Even the direst of blizzard warnings brought with them the exciting prospect of neighborhood battles earnestly waged with snowballs and icicles. And those snows of my childhood provided the backdrop, too, for some of my earliest birding memories. We had no idea what we were doing, and even if we’d had, we wouldn’t have known to call it “birding.” Instead, those dim days of wind and snow and ice were days of noticing, when a glance out the frosty window from the breakfast table found the familiar Blue Jays and Northern Cardinals joined by birds we did not know: sparrowy things of what seemed a dozen kinds (but were certainly nothing more than American Tree Sparrows and two sexes of House Sparrow), funny little black and white woodpeckers so different from our abundant summer red-headeds, and bizarrely smudged gray and brown ground-feeders we learned to call juncos, even though they looked nothing like the juncos in the bird books. A pinch of pancake crumbs or a crushed eggshell was enough to keep them with us for the days (or, in possibly deceptive memory, long weeks) before wind and winter sunshine could clear a patch where they might seek more natural foods.
I am not usually a nostalgic sort, but the past days here in northern New Jersey have provided more than ample opportunity to ponder snow. Beginning Sunday afternoon, snow fell on our neighborhood for close to 48 straight hours, leaving us beneath a soft, dry, windblown blanket some two feet deep. Try as I might, I could not remember having experienced a storm that brought so much snow at once since childhood. Bloomfield isn’t particularly hilly, so sledding was out, and my suggestion of an icicle duel was met with rolled eyes—all that remained was shoveling. Lots of shoveling. Four times we tackled our driveway and the stretch of city sidewalk in front of our house, and each time it was as if the pavement had never known the blade. Happily, the first half of the storm brought light, dry snow; less happily, the winds began to howl as soon as the first six inches or so was down, making the canny shoveler’s decision about an angle of attack critical. Then, when those same winds shifted toward the northeast, the snow grew wetter and heavier, and it was quickly clear that the better part of valor was to get out and at it every two hours, when the weight of a shovelful was still not quite enough to inflict potentially permanent damage on an aging back.
And then came the snow plow. Again and again came the snow plow. Our dead-end road is narrow, and however kind the intentions of the plow drivers, each pass fills the bottoms of the neighborhood driveways with a glacier-worthy mix of ice, compacted snow, and gravel. This time, the pile rose, solid, higher than my head, and there could be no question of digging out: instead, we incised a narrow channel out to the road, then, like archaeologists in search of some precious ancient mitten, gradually broadened it by slicing strata from top to bottom until we heard the scrape of pavement. Only when I was done with my toilsome excavation—and proud of it—did it occur to me that we had nowhere to go anyway.
While the storm howled, the birds hid. One of the pleasures, perhaps the only pleasure, of shoveling snow by hand is the silence: vehicle traffic at a minimum, sane snowblower-owners still huddled inside waiting for the snow to end, a heavy snow is the chance to listen for sounds masked by the normal noise of the suburban everyday. But this time, as long as the snow fell heavy and the wind blew, there was almost nothing to hear: an American Crow somewhere overhead on its tardy way to roost, the distant din of Canada Geese moving between pastures, and nothing else. Finally, a flutter of nearby wings and a puff of snow alerted me to the presence of an American Robin, a first-cycle male nervously plucking berries from a sheltered spot deep within the thuja hedge. Not much of a bird list.
The morning after the snow stopped, the wild creatures we feared might have perished reappeared in force. The neighborhood House Sparrows have known for a long time that we’re an easy touch, but even that chattering horde was outnumbered by White-throated and Song sparrows and juncos (and here in New Jersey, the juncos look like they “should”). The snow had crusted over just enough to support even the most vigorous double-scratching of those small birds, but anything larger than a cardinal still floundered; Blue Jays, Mourning Doves, and starlings sank through to the tops of their heads, creating tiny explosions in the snow.
Black-capped Chickadees and Tufted Titmice were on terra firmer on the suet cakes; both species staged a good incursion into our area this fall, and it was a relief to know that this snow hadn’t driven all of them even farther south. They share the fat most of the time with the little picids we now know as Downy Woodpeckers, but the harsh conditions brought us Red-bellied and Hairy woodpeckers, too: both nest in the neighborhood, but the loss to construction of a patch of old oaks just outside our fence has meant that they spend far less time at our feeders now. Having them drop in over breakfast was well worth a bit of snow shoveling.
Like most of you, I’ve now experienced snow in many places I never thought I’d visit: a Fourth of July blizzard on Medicine Bow, a treacherous coating on a mountain pass in Catalonia, Christmas Eve flakes falling silent on the Sonoran Desert. Every time it’s new. And every time it makes me think of other, older snows and the birds they have brought me.
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