Winter birdsong

The month came in like a lion. That’s the way with March, isn’t it? Lions or lambs and either way, you’ll still freeze a little before Easter. This city doesn’t really see snow usually, so no one was prepared for an early March snow storm. A couple of inches and the city ground to a halt. The kids were off school for days and the Spouse’s university closed “due to adverse weather conditions.” Nothing was ploughed. And the parks filled up with children.

This was my youngest’s first snow. At four-and-half, he’s never seen it before, and he couldn’t believe his luck. All day, every day, he was in and out through the backdoor, suddenly independent about buckles and zippers and the right way to tuck snowpants into boots. In between, I collected his mittens to dry on the radiator and we drank hot chocolate together.

He’s back at school today and everything is melting. Outside, the birds are loud, and it feels as if they are singing the snow away. I remember having that thought before, standing in my parents’ backyard, wearing snowpants and looking up at the trees. It must have been a warm day because I wasn’t wearing my jacket – just overall-strapped snowpants over my granny-knit sweater. The trees were tall above me, four or five of them in our yard alone, and my mother had told me this used to be the edge of a farmer’s field a long, long time ago. Back before there were houses, even. I had a hard time imagining that, but if you looked down from the window upstairs, you could see the trees stretched out in a line all down the street, right to the park at the end where a tall fence blocked view of the highway. And on a March afternoon, every one of those trees was full of birds, every branch singing as the snow melted. 


The birds liked the cedar hedges, too, that ran between the gardens. Sparrows and chickadees flitted in and out of its thickness, and cardinals and blue jays, too, all winter long. I imagined you could trace the lineage of all those birds back to the treeline and the days of the farm. And before that? There must have been woods, I supposed. Forest. And every March, the air would be birdloud. 

Recently, I learned that birdsong evolves. Scientists at the University of Guelph published a study referring to this phenomenon as “cultural evolution.” It turns out that the birds singing in my parents’ garden today will sound different from the ones I heard as a child because, with each generation, birdsong shifts and changes until it is distinctly different. Different, but also the same. You can still identify the species, but the songs evolve. Much like prayer, I think. Like the birds, we learn the shape of prayer from our parents. We listen and learn. We imitate and give shape to what we know. We offer and we teach. 

And beyond us, just outside the window, the birds still gather in the hedges and the trees, singing.

I can’t quite let go of that image as I write these thoughts down. Small singing birds make me think of prayer. I’m not sure if it’s the metaphor of prayers as birds that attracts me or the thought that prayer and birdsong might be twinned. Which is more fitting? That our prayers might be imagined as small, flitting birds seeking shelter? Or that the singing of birds is akin to prayer? Is it possible to divide the bird from the song? Or the work of our hearts from prayer?   


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