Life Goes On

Long after the chill of April is gone

That's wild

by Rikki Hall

I heard them before I saw them, and I was unsure what bird was making the noise. Neither the undifferentiated cry of baby birds nor the familiar call of adults, an unusual squawking was coming from several spots in the trees around me. One took flight and caught my eye, a tiny bird flapping full force yet barely propelling itself forward. Tiny birds typically dart and dash deftly through trees, yet here was a rare bird, a lumbering midget.

I lost sight of it as it landed on a far branch, but motion on a nearby trunk got my attention. A nuthatch, I thought, but when I got my binoculars on it, it was too small. This bird was not scooting around like a nuthatch, but clutching at the bark trying to pull itself onto a limb. It finally righted itself on a proper perch and gave a cry. Parents called back from higher in the trees. It was a Carolina chickadee, different from an adult only by virtue of a stubby tail not yet fully grown. It hopped to a twig, barely grabbing it, then fidgeted itself upright and rested from all the exertion.

I headed toward where the other fledgling had flown and soon caught sight of two more young chickadees. One squawked and wiggled its wings, and a parent promptly delivered an insect to its gaping maw. The other had mastered the art of landing upright but was still working on maneuvering to the limb it was aiming for rather than the one in its way. Its sibling flew into the same tree, landed awkwardly, then executed a perfect hop onto a limb. Though they were still working out the finer points of navigation, these three chickadees had successfully left the nest. Highly social birds, they will follow their parents around through the winter, learning to forage and speak the complex chickadee language.

Not just chickadees have good news this spring. My neighborhood red-bellied woodpecker family has excavated four holes in the dead top of a shortleaf pine. For the third year they are rearing brood in the tree, which died four years ago and has been shedding limbs ever since. Two autumns back its top crashed to the ground, bringing down the woodpeckers' first nesting cavity, but the birds have always had a backup plan.

The fallen top contained not only a fairly large nesting chamber, but also a smaller hole exactly the size of a red-bellied woodpecker, a sleep chamber. Each night the birds tuck themselves into a leeward hole for warmth and protection from predators. They have the technology to expand a sleep chamber into a nest should the need arise. From the ground it is hard to tell which holes are sleep chambers or nests, but the birds seem prepared for contingencies.

The freeze that took out this year's dogwood blooms just as they were peaking seems to have caught the forest unprepared. Young leaves burned, and for a few weeks, hills that should have been painted fresh green were instead brown. Despite the frost, black cherry trees are producing abundant fruit. Along with maples and elms, cherries have leaves tough enough to survive a dogwood winter. The tent caterpillars that plague cherry trees proved less hardy, dying in considerable numbers, and the result has been a productive spring. Perhaps trees have backup plans too.

Most native trees and plants can survive an April freeze. If not, they wait until May to grow. Winds that came with the cold snap were the problem, but now everything is growing again. If you are getting married this weekend and have been fretting about brown trees in photographs, there will be enough greenery and butterflies to make you forget it was ever a concern.

Cherry trees fruited despite losing flowers to the freeze, and there may yet be hope for an acorn crop. Oaks have lost a few weeks of photosynthesis, but they have months to make up for it. The critical factor is whether flowers were damaged before they were pollinated. As the cherries proved, an ovary is hardier than a flower. Mast production will surely be lower this fall. Hickories seem especially hard hit by the freeze, and they may have trouble converting enough sunlight to starch to make nuts, but oaks and other nut-bearing trees may yet surprise us. Even if it is a lean autumn, bears will enjoy a good cherry crop.

Nature is more robust than we give her credit for. Despite the destruction industrial man imposes on the land, fresh wings still flutter each spring. The Appalachians have seen a thousand glaciers come and go. Ice ages take their toll, but many plants and animals retreat to refuges rather than succumbing to extinction. When they recolonize behind retreating glaciers, new species can evolve to replace the ones lost. Life has the power of rebirth.

Rikki Hall is managing editor and publisher of Hellbender Press , a local non-profit environmental education journal.


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