The streaks of light are only beginning to cut divides in the southeastern sky when I lumber out most mornings to arrange the feed and check the water. Almost always, a breeze is striking the yard from the north. Pulling my heavy collar around my throat, I do my chores — sunflower seed and thistle to be poured into feeders and draped across the ground and an old picnic table; suet to be dropped into cages hung from trees. On the best days my breath fills the space in front of me as I work. Looking up and around for an owl or a fox, moving by rote, the cold lets me know that I am alive.
This is the best time — before all the world awakens and all the pursuits must begin. A few cars drift past but they are wisps only. Bird song begins with single notes in the brush by the field. Otherwise, a lovely, durable silence holds sway.
I watch them work their way up the tree-line, sheltered, and then come looping across the road. Their flight lines look as if they are drawing elegant strokes of invisible penmanship right behind them — titmice, chickadees and nuthatches descend, grab a seed, sweep up to a limb, repeat the process. Downy and hairy woodpeckers hang upside down and scatter suet flakes as they hammer the square cakes. Their crakkketting calls sound like someone drawing a stick along teeth. Sometimes the big boy himself will appear with his pointy red thatch and pistol-shot drilling. Mourning doves and cardinals, in pairs, make parts of the yard thrum with their nervous scatterings over the ground. Bluebirds by the dozen ricochet in red-berry bushes, blue and red cycling continually like some wilder three-dimensional Escher drawing. Flickers and blue-jays appear. Suddenly blankets of starlings show up and seem to eat everything.
A family of seven crows will visit when I leave, one of them balanced in a high branch ready to croak a warning, the others practicing bow-legged walks on the grass. They look wonderful in their radiant black, like minature emblems of another dark knight.