The Season of Zugunruhe

sparrow in the autumn

A Redstart gleams glossy black and is gone. Kinglets trickle past me, their high calls scattering south. Bird migration is in full swing. The birds may be finding their way by seeing the magnetic fields of the earth by virtue of magnetite crystals in their brains, internal compasses that let them perceive magnetism as we would a color. Birds can also hear infrasound, the faint, long-traveling whispers that can come from a bird flapping down the center of this continent, guiding myself by the susurrations of Pacific breakers to my right and slightly softer hiss of the Atlantic to my left. Perhaps they are navigating using the direction of polarized light waves, using the beams of the southward-hooping sun to move towards the equator.

Whatever the guidance, Zugunruhe, “movement restlessness,” comes over birds in early autumn and fills my blood too. Triggered by changing constellations, by dwindling temperatures and food, little birds start hopping restlessly and facing south. The insect-eaters must leave or perish, and the birds that remain become enmeshed in preparation for the coming cold months. Bird migration isn’t a choice, it’s survival.

I have been watching birds replay a diluted version of their springtime squabbling, flocking, singing, and defending territories. This time the territories are not for breeding but for food. The mockingbirds from whose trees I steal fruit look down at me coldly with their pale yellow eyes. The persimmon tree wreathed in grapevines is the crown jewel in one mockingbird’s realm; he screeches in horror at the impertinent starlings gorging themselves. He chases them out of the tree, but as they leave, the sparrows fly in. Flickers stain their black beaks purple, ignoring the mocker’s cries in favor of disputes of their own.

The raucous energy masks desperation. Bird migration is a matter of survival, and every ounce of food collected during the day will be needed to survive the winter months or propel tiny bodies down bird migration corridors. The ruby-throated hummingbirds, who leave us as soon as the flowers wilt, must fly five hundred miles over the Gulf of Mexico. The scientists who study the delicate numbers of these things tell us that only two grams of nectar are needed for the journey. Bobolinks fly to Jamaica on the first leg of their flight to South America, where they grow so fat that they are known as “butterbirds,” but it is not idle gluttony that impels them to gorge. They must make an eighty-hour non-stop flight over the ocean and cannot refuel, arriving svelte again in Argentina.

There are rigors enough even for the stay-at-home birds, and so autumn’s abundance must be taken advantage of. Sounds of seed cracking surround me, and the hulls of ash fruits scatter down as finches crush them. Jays slide through the air carrying acorns, and woodpeckers hammer after grubs before these burrow deeper into the heartwood. Chickadees seem to be the only blithe ones these days, but it’s hard to get a chickadee down. They might be sobered if ornithologists could tell them that a chickadee flushed during a winter night, having lost the heat stored in its fluffed feathers, will die by morning. If the chickadees are not sobered, I am, and resolve to scatter sunflower seed.

The trees are gilded from the top down, blazing fall’s warning colors. The yellow leaves of the tulip poplar scream caution, and danger flies flags from every turning maple. Sunday drivers through the harlequin hills may not consider the yellow of the trees to be the same yellow of the wasp: the incautious, unknowledgeable, and unprepared get stung. Winter’s needle is sharp, and a tingling of instinct impels me to eat berries, amass insulation, and find cozy hibernacula. The bile of cold gnaws away at my summer self and leaves a squint-eyed, hungry winter skeleton.

Creatures who tell the time by thermoclines and constellations are thrown into a frenzy of preparation. They dig burrows, gulp fruit and the last of the insects, molt, and shed summer coats. The rabbit tracks that show up every morning on my sand plot are growing more and more indistinct as the rabbits grow their winter shoes. I look for indications of a hard winter: how hungry are the woodchucks? Are opossum tails skinny or swollen with fat? Despite my indoor heating I try to pay attention to these things.

By mid-October the ground has lost its warmth. Starlings are puffed up to twice their summer size. I am glad for the pile of dry leaves and grasses I have scraped together to sit on, but one frosty morning I arrive to find it gone, a tell-tale trail of grass stems leading down into the nearest woodchuck burrow. The nightly freezes have begun shearing the abscission layers between leaf and tree, so that even on breezeless mornings I hear the shuffling, scampering chorus of falling leaves. Whatever sadness I felt at seeing so much apparent death dissolved when I realized: a leaf does not care if it is falling. In the harvest-moon nights of fall and into the cold dark of winter, wheeling constellations whisper legends to us. The myths behind Orion, Ursa Major and the rest of them just begin to scratch the surface. Over eons, over fires, over people huddled under bearskins in caves, the stars have inspired stories. It takes some perseverance and plenty of sitting outside in the cold, but echoes of our stories still travel among the stars, echoing down to those who listen. The rise and set of planets and stars track our movement through the galaxy, metering out the ribbon of time with balletic precision.

Autumn itself is a reminder of the passing of time. The wild asparagus have turned yellow overnight, the mosquitoes have suddenly vanished, and an afternoon’s windstorm can leave the forest naked. Even we clock-bound humans make a concession to the season with Daylight Savings Time.  I peer through the veil of my clock and schedule to brush my fingers against the moon, imagining being ruled by frosts and freezes, by circling constellations and berries on the bush. These are the things that remain, I think. Our books, our buildings: all dust. What survives is the survival, the sweet sucking of a persimmon and gnawing of a bone. It is not just a time for relentless leaf raking and puffing sweaters out of mothballs. There is something else there, something that ties me to the woodchucks, makes me itchy with Zugunruhe, makes me dream of wearing wolf skins, and blood on the snow.

Wilderness Awareness School