A Chapter of Things To Do This Winter
Y OU should go skating—crawling, I ought to say—over a pond of glare ice this winter. Take the pond you are most familiar with. Go early on a bright day, before any skater arrives, and lying flat upon the clear, "black" ice, study the bottom of the pond and the fish that swim below you. They have boats with glass bottoms along the California coast, through which to watch the marvelous bottoms off shore. But an Eastern pond covered with glare ice is as good, for such ice is a plate-glass window into a wonder world.
Fight your way one of these winter days to the crest of some high hill and stand up against a northwest gale. Feel the sweep of the winds from across the plain beneath you; hear them speaking close in your ear, as they fly past; catch them and breathe them, until they run red in your leaping veins. Master them, and make them, mighty as they are, your own. And something large and free, strong and sound will pass into you; and you will love the great world more, and you will feel how fit a place, for the strong of heart, is this earth to live on.
Keep a careful list of the winter birds you see; and visit every variety of wood, meadow, and upland in your neighborhood—not neglecting the parks and city trees—for a sight of the rarer winter visitors, such as the snowy owl, the snow buntings, and the crossbills.
If you know little about the birds, then this is the time to begin your study. When they are so few and scarce? Yes, just because they are few and scarce. On a June morning (unless you are at home in the woods) you will be confused by the medley of songs you hear, and the shapes flitting everywhere about you; and you may be tempted to give up your study for the very multitude. Get a pair of good field or opera glasses and a good bird book, such as Hoffmann's "Guide to the Birds," and go into the fields and woods—leaving the book at home.
The first bird you see follow up until
you can remember
(1) his size, color—whether he has a white bar on
wings, or small spots or large clear spots on breast;
(2) his chirp, or call; (3) something peculiar about
his flight—a flirt of the tail, a habit of flying
down to the ground in getting away. Then come back to
your book and identify him from memory. If you cannot,
then go out again and again; and it will not be long
before either this first one, or others, will be
accurately made out—the beginning of an acquaintance
that you can extend in the summer, but which will be
plenty large enough for your "coming-out" winter into
bird society. For here is a list of the birds you may
be able to find during the
Screech owl, crow, robin, flicker, jay, goldfinch, tree sparrow, English sparrow, song sparrow, junco, golden-crowned kinglet, nuthatch, brown creeper, downy woodpecker, quail, partridge.
See to it that no bird in your neighborhood starves for lack of food that you can supply. Tie a piece of suet to a tree or bush near the house (by the window if you can) for the chickadees and blue jays; keep a place on the lawn cleared of snow and well supplied with crumbs and small seeds for the juncos and the sparrows; hang a netted bag of cracked nuts out some where for the nuthatches; and provide corn and nuts for the squirrels.
Go out on a cold December day, or a January day, and see how many "signs" of spring—"Minor Prophets," as Mr. Torrey calls them—you can bring home. They will be mostly buds of various sorts. Then, on a warm, soft day, go again to see what you can bring home—flitting, creeping, crawling things that the warm sun has brought from their winter hiding.
Make a map of your sky, showing the positions of the planets, the constellations, and the most brilliant stars, the points in the horizon for the rising and setting of the sun, say, in January, noting the changes in places of things since your last map drawn in October. Any school child can do it, and, in doing it, learn the few large facts about the sky that most people are pitifully ignorant of.
Go out after a fresh light snow and take up the trail of a fox or a rabbit or a partridge, as you might take up a problem in arithmetic, or as a detective might take up a clew, and "solve" it—where the creature came from, where going, what for, in a hurry or not, pursued or pursuing, etc. It will give you one of the best of lessons in observation, in following a clew, and in learning to take a hint.
Go out to study the face of the ground—the ridges, hollows, level places, the ledges, meadows, sandbanks, the course of the streams, the location of the springs—the general shape and contour, the pitch and slant and make-up of the region over which you tramp in the summer. Now, when the leaves are off and things swept bare, you can get a general idea of the lay of the land that will greatly aid you in your more detailed study of plants and birds, of individual things, in the summer. It is like an outline map in your geography.
Winter is the time to do much good reading. A tramp over real fields is to be preferred to a tramp in a book. But a good book is pretty nearly as good as anything under the stars. You need both fields and books. And during these cold days—impossible days, some of them, for work afield—you will read, read. Oh, the good things to read that have been written about the out-of-doors!