Winter and Creatures
by: Mike Lushington  

            At times such as these, acts of faith can seem flimsy and farfetched indeed.

            As I write, we are just beginning to emerge from the fourth spell of hard cold of the month of January. In all of my years on the North Shore, I do not remember a stretch of cold quite to compare with it. I grant that, in part, it has seemed even more intense than usual because we have so little snow to act as nature's insulator around foundations and over vulnerable water lines. But I am certain, too, that this will have to go down as one of the coldest Januarys on record. It has made the very idea of spring seem remote, farfetched, even delusional.

            And yet, those creatures around us that are more attuned to the cycles of the seasons do seem always to know things that elude us.

            I ventured forth the other day to have a look at the ducks that are around the Inch Arran in Dalhousie. The goldeneyes and mergansers (two species of each) are busily surviving the extreme cold. While they are doing that, they are also very actively engaged in their spring courtship rituals. The males of all four species are in full breeding plumage and are beginning to do their best to impress any female that happens to be in the neighbourhood. By the time the robins return in any number in April, these birds will have these details all sorted out and will be well on their way to nesting.

            But even the ducks will be behind the ravens and the Great horned owls.

            On one of the most bitter afternoons of the past while, I was out in the hills in back of home. I happened to look up at one point, and spotted a pair of ravens high overhead. They were flying together, back and forth. playing in the same winds that were producing ground level wind chills of around -40. They were courting as well. Ravens mate for life so one has to wonder sometimes why they engage in this annual renewal of their relationship, but it must be important if they engage in it under such adverse conditions. Great horned owls will be nesting and laying eggs within the next few weeks. Picture the female sitting on her eggs in an open nest at the top of an old dead tree during a February or March blizzard and you begin to get a sense of the tenacity of life that so many of the creatures around us demonstrate.

            Soon, too, some of the hardier trees will be beginning to stir. I looked the other day and could detect no such signs just yet, but one day very soon, I will notice the first faint blush of colour in the red maples and the tiniest impression of swelling in the buds of some of the willows and aspens. The signs are almost invisible, almost beyond hope, but they are there, and every day now, they will grow and expand just that tiny bit more.

            Rabbits will begin to do their mating runs and dances in the cold hard moonlight of February and March. One day soon I will notice the pungent, skunk-like odour of a love-sick male fox. Barred owls will begin to call and woodpeckers, to hammer out their messages of love and devotion, all while the weather seems to howl mournfully on forever. And, amid all the cold and wind, I heard the love song - the first of the year - of the chickadee the other day. Such a tiny bird, such a sweet little song - hope animated in such a seemingly delicate little bundle of feathers and heart and optimism. Perhaps we should take a bit of that hope for ourselves, even as winter seems to drag on. It won't last - and the creatures around us know that.


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