Raven on the wing, soundless in the sky.
The forest is quiet, not even wind caught in the pine. It is as if all sound has been trapped in the drifted mounds of snow — softened, silenced, the entire woodland muted.
I stand under a close canopy of balsam, breath held, body immobile. Watching me, the dog quiets, ears pricked. For a moment, his frenetic energy is stilled as we stand in watchful observance.
As if on cue, a chickadee comes sweeping through the branches, a short, sharp cry to alert her flock. They emerge, black wings scattering snow, encircling us with chatter. Their choreography of constant movement makes them hard to count, and I turn in slow circles, ticking them off with my fingers.
A pair of nuthatches cling to the outskirts, softly conversing, shy in the crowd of performing chickadees.
It was 119 years ago that ornithologist and Audubon Society member Frank Chapman suggested a Christmas bird census, and 27 bird counters held 25 bird counts from Toronto, Ontario, to Pacific Grove, California. It is in the footsteps of those original curious citizens that I follow, along with dozens of people in Price County who count the birds at their feeders or venture out in the woods and roads to tally wings in the sky.
The shhhuush of snow under metal snowshoes seems too quiet to disturb anything — almost too quiet to hear — but our footsteps send a grouse exploding from the snow, his soft brown body ricocheting through the branches.
In the stillness that comes after, a blue jay breaks the silence, warning the rest of the forest that a stranger has entered their haven.
The list I’m compiling grows as the day passes. Brown creeper clinging to the maple, turkeys in the crabapple tree, crows over the river, mourning dove in the street, chickadees dipping across the sky from tree to tree.
In a 15-mile radius around the Fifield Post Office, other people tip their heads skyward, jotting down the birds they see. Flocks of cedar waxwings, cardinals at feeders, a sharp-shinned hawk scattering smaller birds, a persistent robin, woodpeckers of every stripe, a handful of goldfinch and juncos.
This month, observers across North America did the same — the numbers and species added into a comprehensive record of our birds. That data, collected over 119 years nationally (and 54 years locally), has allowed scientists and citizens alike to clearly see trends in the avian populations across the continent.
It has documented tragic declines in numerous bird species, illustrated temperature changes occuring in the winter season, and created a wealth of historic data that can be used to help protect birds and the places they thrive in.
There is a scientific purpose that brings me to the woods today ... but it is more than that. It is an acknowledgement, a nod toward the species whose presence we take for granted, so used to the chatter of chickadees we barely hear it anymore. I don’t want to wake up one day and find the woods silent, so I venture out into the cold with countless others who feel the same way.
We number the birds, the familiar and the unusual, the chill of winter settling in layers of clothing. This is science, yes, but I’d be lying if I said my heart didn’t sing every time a bird breaks the silence.