Rain, this morning, staccato against the skylight. Outside the water puddles in every low spot, overflowing to gurgle into drains. It’s been a week of contrasts and extremes. After the heatwave only a few days earlier, the week began with snow. Daffodils lay flat, and violets were edged with frost like sugar crystals. By Thursday, it was sunny and warm again, the snow long gone.
Over the river, one barn swallow hunted sparse insects alongside the tree swallows. The ospreys are all on their nests, and Canada geese hiss and snap at anyone who comes too close to their brooding partner. Regardless of the vagaries of temperature and precipitation which my aging human sensibilities object to, the imperatives of spring continue. Reproduction is all, if enough food can be found to sustain life. If enough places remain to provide that food and nesting habitat.
I sat at a picnic table on the university campus yesterday in 18C sunshine, listening to a cardinal sing from the Norway spruces. Forty-five years ago, in my first year as an undergraduate at this particular university, I was doing the same. The cardinal I was listening to then was a forefather of this one by at least fifteen generations, given the average length of a wild cardinal’s life. Little has changed in this spot, although slowly across the entire campus open ground—research plots and gardens and greens, old barns with open courtyards, old fields—has gradually been paved over, or built upon: more student housing, more parking lots, more teaching and research facilities, more sports fields. More land leased for private development, offices and retail. Even the Arboretum loses ground (literally) to research buildings and parking and managed plots. I doubt the cardinal notices, nor will the development affect it or its descendants much. Cardinals like gardens and shrubs and feeders.
But a huge swath of land once leased research ground will become housing in the next five years, and the woods and old fields and riverine habitat on either side of it will be under greater pressure, not just from a greater number of people (and dogs, and roaming cats) but from a desire for more sports fields and playgrounds rather than unkempt and wilder land. Already meadowlarks are sparse, and the sparrows and warblers that need scrubby grassland habitat.
My sense already this spring is that the birds are fewer; it’s my sense every spring now, and I think a valid one for most species. I can rejoice in ravens and sandhill cranes and bluebirds, and the ospreys and bald eagles—but the small birds of woodland and hedgerow and understory are largely disappearing. It’s not all recent; it’s not all climate change or pesticide use or avian viruses or fatal building collisions, but all contribute.
I’m noticing a reluctance to go walking some days, to be confronted by the sparsity of birds, and by woods and fields far too quiet—or disrupted by the sound of chainsaws and diggers. But—almost equally—I know I should, for a myriad of reasons that include bearing witness to what is being lost and appreciating what remains. The cardinal still sings.