A promise of spring in the sounds of chickadee

Chickadee on a branch

Nothing. No tracks but my own stitched into the dusting of fresh snow that fell last night, white as birch bark. No flittering shadows in the trees, not a sliver of bird song in the air.

Winter in the Lakeshore. What sun there is this time of year shines weakly, halfheartedly through the white gauze of clouds, offering not even the slightest pretense of warmth. For nearly a week temperatures in the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore have barely risen above zero. The mercury seems painted to the bottom of the thermometer. A shiver runs through me as I stomp my feet for warmth and then listen again for any sign of life. The only sound is from the bare tips of branches chattering like teeth.

At first glance nature doesn’t seem to have invested much in this. There are subtle beauties—pine branches tipped in white, the pale-blue glow of late afternoon light off the snow. But this deep into winter, you look less for beauty than for signs that spring has not been forgotten. And most often, it comes this time of year as the simple call of a chickadee.

Some 88 percent of the bird species found in the islands migrate south for the winter, but not the chickadee. Weighing just a third of an ounce, the sight of this little spark of life or even just the sliver of its song, seems nothing short of miraculous in the depth of winter’s hold.

To keep their internal furnace stoked, chickadees eat twice as much food in winter as in summer. They feed almost constantly during daylight to accumulate a layer of fat that will burn slowly through the cold night. They also have 30 percent more feathers in the winter and can fluff them up, trapping a layer of warm air.

When it gets very cold, chickadees lower themselves into a kind of controlled hypothermic state, dropping their body temperatures as much as 20 degrees below the normal 104, thereby slowing energy consumption. With any hint of warmth, chickadees emerge from their sheltered caverns of thick brush, chirping softly and eating, always eating.

I cross a small creek. Bending down, I shovel the snow off the surface and tap the ice with my mittened hand, imagining a painted turtle somewhere beneath it half-hearing the thud as it waits patiently for spring. But still there is no movement, no sound. Only silence.

But then, just as I start to turn back towards home I hear it: the soft, two-toned whistle of chickadees. As I search for them, I see a downy woodpecker spiraling up a birch tree, its blaze of reds as sharp as a tongue of flame. On the ground, I notice rabbit tracks where moments ago I had seen only unbroken snow.

These slight signs of life make it possible to believe in spring again. They help me appreciate the beauty of what is left of winter and remind me that the cold won’t last forever. Each track, each snippet of bird song, each frozen seed-pod, is an affirmation of life, a defiance to the cold, a promise.

Take heart, they seem to say. Spring will come again. Even on the coldest day, it is written in the song of a chickadee.

Jeff Rennicke, Executive Director