NEW LEBANON, N.Y.
As the arctic air mass whips in and coats the outside world in hoarfrost and snow, temperatures drop way below zero. Fruit and berries are exhausted. Birds are no longer able to find worms and insects in the wild. Our feeders become sites of frenzied feasting.
Greenish goldfinches come in groups of four or five until we have nearly 40 at each set of feeders. The goldfinches line the tubular feeders and the trays and they dot the ground under the left-out chair and table where we spread seeds after each snowstorm.
This last week seven purple finches, a flock of juncos, a camaraderie of chickadees, a trio of titmice and a pair of white-breasted nuthatches fly in to join the ever growing group of goldfinches. Then the next day, even colder still, brings on a posse of noisy blue jays, a few mourning doves, a solitary starling and five pairs of cardinals!
What a sight to see five, brilliant red, male cardinals hopping over the snow grazing on fallen seeds! The murky-colored females sit almost hidden in the nearby bushes before coming over to join the males.
When the birds have their fill and disappear into the woods, I take to the library and look for those books, bought, glanced at and shelved when the weather is warm and conducive to birding. I look through the stack of unread bird books and find two by the British birder and author, Mark Cocker: "Birds Britannica" and the more recent, "Birds ænd People." Both are coffee table tomes -- large, heavy and beautiful -- with startling photographs.
The first, "Birds Britannica," focuses on -- the birds of Britain. Cocker, a birder since boyhood, contacted more than a thousand other bird fanatics (and England has a reputation for breeding ornitholigically razed "twitchers'') and weaves their observations along with his own research into (bird) family histories.
Take the chapters on grouse and pheasants. Grouse and their cohorts, ptarmigan, quail, partridge and pheasants are game birds. Cocker makes much of the history of hunting including quotes from both avid hunters and even more avid conservationists. How sad to see a group of modern day gunners "Surveying the day's achievements," in a photo of more than a hundred ring-necked pheasants laid out side by side like the withered cabbages in the field next to them.
Or the chapter on "the'' wren. Note: since the Brits have been birding for hundreds of years and they think of their island as the origin of ornithology, nomenclature for certain birds was simple. If there was one common bird of a species, it was definitively known as "the'' as in the wren, the swallow, the robin, the nightingale. There was no need to distinguish it from other similar species with descriptive adjectives. The scientific name for "the'' wren is Troglodytes troglodytes, known to us as the winter wren. When birding in Britain, be sure to bone up on the scientific nomenclature for species. But I digress.
The chapter on the wren has wonderful observations of how the male wren builds a few nests in various habitats so the female can choose the best constructed in the best neighborhood. On the other hand, wrens fill nearby nest boxes with twigs so no other birds can use them. An old farthing coin carries the image of the tiny wren.
Cocker's newest book, "Birds and People," follows much the same format but he takes on most of the bird families of the world (nearly 200). He "attempts to explore the common ground where these two different organisms meet. It is about how people's lives are entwined with, and are very often shaped by, their encounter with birds."
Birds have supplied people with food -- meat and eggs -- since the beginning of time. Cocker states that "the red junglefowl, with its myriad domesticated forms, is the biggest single source of human protein on Earth." Birds provide humans with clothing: feathers for down blankets, feathers for headdresses. Images of birds decorate walls and windows, fabric and tapestry, posters and pictures, coins and stamps.
Our love affair with birds goes back to the beginning of time. They are part and parcel of many cultures myths and fables. Some are good omens, some are harbingers of death. Some are both: The owl may symbolize both evil/death or wisdom/luck depending on where you are. In the chapter on warblers, Cocker uses Charley Harper's wonderful painting, "Mystery of the Missing Migrants,'' a modernistic flight of recognizable, colorful birds to illustrate the annual warbler trek south.
David Tipling's photos are spectacular whether showing a mundane American robin splashing about in a puddle or a regal African elephant surrounded by a murmuration of red-billed queleas. Others, like the "The Kazakh Family with Falcon'' illustrate the ancient art of hunting with birds.
My favorite photo is the clot of 50 or so birders each armed with a pair of binoculars, a telescope or a camera -- or all three -- observing a white-crowned sparrow (unseen in the photo). So enthralled were the residence of the Norfolk village of Cley-next-the-Sea in England that the sparrow's image was incorporated into one of their church windows.
I go from reading about thrushes including the American robin to looking out the window and seeing the trees in the backyard alive once again with 20 or 30 of these birds twitching and clucking. Almost makes me want to go out for a walk until I see the branches whipping back and forth in the cold, cold wind.
Clellie Lynch is a regular Eagle contributor.