The white three-quarter-moon rose over the flat eastern horizon while the sun set behind the blackened mountains of the Continental Divide in the west. A mid-winter orange glow lit the hill across the field behind my house. Ridged snowdrifts that had buried the field for over a month turned iced blue in the evening shadows.
I closed the sunroom sliding glass door, stomped snow off my boots and turned one more time to observe the last minute diners at my bird feeders in pine and leafless deciduous trees that lined my backyard fence. I’d finished the four o’clock feeding and poured buckets of warm water in plastic pans near the feeders. It had been an unusually harsh winter so neighborhood birds, squirrels and rabbits that stayed through Colorado winters depended on my help to survive. Record-setting snow accumulation had buried the ground with alternated three-foot tall layers of ice, snow, and ice for longer than even the hardiest creature could endure. Every day I filled feeders, spread seed on top of snow mounds, and filled water stations to help the wildlife in my yard and the field beyond over their toughest times. No other food sources were available to many, especially the ground-feeders. I’d never had to help for such an extended period in the twelve years I’d lived in my house.
I watched chickadees, sparrows, and wrens flock to the feeders from naked shrubs and frantically swarm in waves beneath in a final attempt to store energy for the night. Flickers, Blue Jays, Magpies and Crows joined the feast in a desperate attempt to fill their stomachs before sunset. Rabbits emerged from their daytime shelters and joined the frantic fray.
I stood at the glass door in my coat, boots, mittens, and hat. Never immune to the spell of the miracle of such abundant wildlife in my suburban corner of the world, I dumbly remained frozen in awe, empty buckets in hand, and dripped on the rug.
In the dim light I noticed a medium-sized bird at the base of a tree trunk. He didn’t move like the others. He walked slowly, while his bobbed head pecked at the sparkling white under a canopy of branches. Other birds jumped, hopped, or skipped when on the ground. But this one moved in a deliberate step-by-step pattern. With his back to me, the pattern and color of his feathers looked like those of Flicker woodpeckers. I thought he might be hypothermic for he didn’t move like a Flicker. He turned slightly and I couldn’t believe my eyes.
The spell broken, I dropped the buckets and scrambled to the cabinet that stored my binoculars and bird books. I focused on the newcomer just as he turned completely and faced my direction. Instead of red markings like a Flicker, he sported a brilliant yellow chest that glowed even in the faded light. At the base of his neck a distinct, thick black V told me his species. A Meadowlark!
Meadowlarks migrated south for winter and most had left early that fall. I suspected a harsh winter when most migratory species left my yard and field in August instead of September or October. I’d never had a Meadowlark in my yard before; they usually remained in open prairie fields like the one behind my house. Since childhood Meadowlarks had always been my favorite species of bird. Their twinkling early morning song announced the approach of spring and continued throughout warm, soothing summer days. The latest I’d heard a Meadowlark sing in the autumn occurred one year on October 6th.
Yet here, in the last week of January, there remained one lone Meadowlark—and in my yard. He scratched at the base of the apple tree trunk and settled down into typical ground-nester posture, fluffed feathers, head pulled tight into his body, and squarely set over invisible spindly legs. Apparently he planned to spend the night. I watched him until it became too dark to distinguish his camouflaged form from the tree bark. I worried that he’d freeze; the expected temperature had been predicted to be zero degrees. But then I realized he’d come through a three-foot Christmas blizzard with tornado-speed winds and four more storms since. Obviously he knew how to survive.
I called a friend who managed a local wildlife center. She informed me Meadowlarks sometimes wintered over in Colorado and they had several at her center. She added that I’d never noticed them because they’d stay in open fields, but because the winter had been so harsh I could expect to see behavior I’d never observed before. I felt better and decided to not intervene. Any outside activity on my part would frighten the bird and he might have tried to fly away. He could have injured himself in the dark at worst, and at the least, be forced to expend precious energy he’d need to stay warm through the night.
When I entered the main part of my cozy house, I became aware of a joy I hadn’t felt in a long time. January had been a tough month. I’d lost an old dog and an old cat one week apart. I’d had health problems all the previous year and had to continue working in my business with no breaks since the previous March when I had just two weeks off for major surgery. Three of my elderly pets had suffered medically throughout the year and I was strapped financially because of all the expenses I’d incurred to care for them, while my own energy kept my productivity lower than usual. The previous year, I’d lost two other elderly dogs two weeks apart. One, my Australian Shepherd, was my soul mate and the day after his death I began menopause with horrific hot flashes and depression I couldn’t emerge from. The deaths of my long-time companions magnified the passage of time; my own aging and memories of younger, healthier times for us all dragged me into depths of despair I’d never known.
I’d made a list of things I’d dealt with in sixteen months and there were twenty-six life-altering events that would send even the most mentally healthy individual into an emotional abyss. The night I saw the Meadowlark was in the middle of a one-week at-home vacation I’d taken to deal with my losses and emotional funk.
My surprise joy gave me a few moments of elation and escape from the exhaustion I’d been steeped in. My heart beat faster, my energy surged, and happiness flooded me. Hope peeked out of my dormant psyche for an instant.
The next morning I wanted to get up. For months I’d dreaded the start of each day and had it not been for my business and the needs of my remaining pets, I’d have wallowed in bed. I raced downstairs to see my Meadowlark. I hoped he hadn’t died–I’d experienced enough death. Oddly, I felt another twinge of hope.
The sun streamed onto the floor when I opened the shade on the sliding glass door and looked to the base of the Meadowlark’s tree. An empty impression of his improvised bed greeted me. Saddened at his departure, but overjoyed that he made it through the night, I turned and began my day.
Throughout the week I continued to put food out and always made sure I sprinkled plenty of seed on the ground, just in case my Meadowlark returned. I provided water and kept my binoculars easily available. Two nights after my Meadowlark appeared the temperature dropped to minus eighteen degrees. How could he have made it through that? Meadowlarks were a summer bird. They survived temperatures in the field as high as one hundred degrees. Could a creature as small as a Meadowlark be adaptable enough to survive such extremes? I grew depressed thinking of the suffering he might have experienced as he died of hypothermia. I’d never understood why innocent creatures had to suffer.
I sat twiddling my eggs the next morning and gazed out the French doors of my kitchen. Ahead of me lay another day of numbness and depression. Hard as I tried during my week off to process my losses of family pets, menopausal transitions, and the conflict of what to do with my future, I couldn’t come to any definitive conclusions or directions.
All my life I’d been a high-energy achiever. I’d always flown through professional advancements ahead of my peers. I’d lived a glamorous, exciting life of professional accolades, financial accumulation, emotional growth, and garnered attention in a variety of fields of endeavor. I’d accomplished everything I’d set out to, lived in a beautiful house, traveled widely, and surrounded myself with loving pets, good friends, and supportive family. I remained an active volunteer in causes I felt passionate about. I couldn’t see anything more I might want or had energy to pursue. My future began to take on a form of no desires, no new goals, or need to attain. How would I spend the next twenty or thirty years? I felt like a fish out of water. Always one to make, strive for, and attain goals, I foresaw none that inspired me. My week of solitude addressed my all-encompassing burnout and fatigue, but didn’t energize me.
I’d had no appetite but forced myself to eat and stick to my normal nutritious diet and exercise regimen although no enthusiasm resulted. Absentmindedly I forked eggs and bacon into my mouth. Before I could swallow I almost choked. There, in the field, just outside my chain link fence I saw a bird that moved like my Meadowlark. I swung my binoculars to my eyes and zeroed in on the bird as he moved in and out of tree shadows. He turned and sunlight set his yellow chest ablaze. Overjoyed, I watched him for over an hour.
The Meadowlark pecked and walked. He kept a vigilant eye out for danger but seemed to know the squirrels and other birds, even the big ones, wouldn’t harm him. More active than I’d seen him, that morning of warmer temperatures and brilliant sun perked him into a faster gait and more rapid beak pokes. His black cinder eyes shone with life and he fluffed his striped feathers, stretched a leg, and flicked his tail from a point to a fan to a point in split second blurs.
All of a sudden it hit me. My Meadowlark didn’t feel obligated to do anything but survive. In the spring he’d be rejoined with others of his kind but until then he remained content to be alone. He went about the business of life from seed to seed and day to day. He lived in his moment. He felt no need to obsess about his future. The day was warmer than it had been in a long, long time and he seemed happy with that immediate fact. His survival wisdom and natural instinct had gotten him through the worst winter of his life. His courage had held panic at bay and he had been versatile enough to change his species’ habits and enter a yard, under trees that may have held danger, but instead supplied him with nourishment and shelter.
My Meadowlark awoke in me the realization that natural instinct guided all creatures. If I could allow myself to listen to my nature and relegate my mind to live in the present moment, my persistent conflicts might dissolve into solutions. I needed to become versatile to change, if need be. I had been provided with all I needed for survival; living each day proved enough. The future would happen. I needed to calm myself, learn from outside sources, but remain focused on my own path, which may extend itself slowly, event-by-event.
Someday my Meadowlark will die. No one but me will remember him. But he changed one human life simply by being. Perhaps the only goal I should set is: if one animal or person benefited from my existence, I should find satisfaction and meaning in my life.
I will honor the Meadowlark and take each day moment to moment, try to leave a positive legacy of contributions, and realize life can’t be controlled. True peace can be found in random experiences, if they are dealt with patience, courage, a realistic attitude, appreciation for what has been, and renewed hope for what may yet be.