Cold weather is hard on creatures who don’t hibernate. Small animals and birds are burning more calories to keep warm just as their greatest sources of food—seeds and berries and insects—have disappeared, and predators are burning more calories to keep warm just as their greatest sources of food—smaller animals and birds—have grown less plentiful, too: many rodents and reptiles are sleeping deep underground now, and many birds have flown farther south for the winter. Worse, when temperatures dip below freezing, drinking water is hard to come by for birds and mammals alike. And to keep their feathers primed for optimal insulation, birds also need water for bathing, even in winter, and a trickle of sun-warmed ice isn’t enough.
For human beings, particularly for a human being nursing a monstrous cold she can’t seem to shake, it’s a good time to stay indoors, to participate in the natural world by observing it through a window. Fortunately, there is hardly a window in this house that doesn’t look out onto a feeder or birdbath. There’s a thistle feeder just outside my office window, a mealworm feeder outside our bedroom window, feeders for shelled peanuts and whole peanuts and safflower seeds and suet outside the family room, and another mealworm feeder is visible from the living-room sofa. Plus there are birdbaths of varying heights on three sides of the house, and one of them contains a heating element that keeps it from freezing. On very cold mornings, birds of all kinds gather in a great mob nearby and flutter down in waves to drink.
But some of the birds who frequent this yard in winter aren’t looking for peanuts. They’re looking for the thirsty creatures who come to the birdbath, for the hungry birds who come to the feeders. Because I was under the weather all week, I stayed home and carried my papers and my laptop from room to room, just to vary the view. Almost every day I caught with just the corner of my eye a Cooper’s hawk barreling past some window or other in a flash of wings and yellow claws, or noticed a barred owl sitting still and silent on a tree limb. In winter it hunts during daytime, too, patiently waiting for some small crawling thing to stir in the brush pile, for some unwary dove to land on the ground under the safflower feeder, looking for seeds the other birds dropped.