Non-Profit Internet Source for News, Events, History, & Culture of Northern Frederick & Carroll County Md./Southern Adams County Pa.


Of Aesop, and Gershwin,
& Feeding Birds in Winter

Bill Meredith

"I got plenty o' nothin', and nothin's plenty for me."
                       Ira Gershwin, "Porgy and Bess"

Time continues to speed up; we have scarcely got used to writing 2006 in our checkbook, and December is here again. We are in that strange, unnamed season between fall and winter, when the leaves have come down but we haven't had a real snow yet. The first week of the month was warm enough to play golf in shirtsleeves; the second week, daytime temperatures struggled to get out of the 30's, and sometimes didn't make it. It will be like that for a while; the solstice will come on the 22nd, but most creatures won't notice because it will keep getting colder until February. About the only ones that are having any fun this time of year are the great horned owls; this is their mating season, and one of them was in my back yard at 1 a.m. last week, advertising his availability. But even that won't last long; by Christmas they will be starting to incubate their eggs, and that's hard work even when it isn't so cold.

2006 was a mast year of moderate proportions; the local trees were preparing a hearty crop of nuts and fruit until the drought came in August. They still did pretty well; the trees in our yard were loaded with acorns and English walnuts, and the squirrels got busy back in September, running around with their mouths full of nuts and digging up the lawn to bury them. My wife was inspired by their industriousness and insisted that I plant garlic in the herb garden now instead of waiting until spring; then when it got cold this week, the squirrels forgot where the nuts were and started digging up the garlic bulbs. They apparently didn't like the garlic after they got to it, but they kept digging it up just for spite.

The flowering crab outside my window was loaded with tiny red-orange apples after the leaves fell, and I spent a rainy afternoon watching a flock of cedar waxwings stuffing themselves until they were chased away by starlings. The starlings descended in a black cloud that would have made Alfred Hitchcock shiver, and by the end of the day the tree was nearly bare. The same thing happened to the honeysuckles a few weeks earlier. They were covered with bright red berries that looked like a supply sufficient to last all winter. One day the robins decided they were ready and began to feast; but they didn't have sense enough to do it quietly, and before long the starlings heard them, and that was that. They ate everything in sight, and when winter gets here in earnest, food will be scarce.

One of the books I learned to read before I started to school was Aesop's Fables. I'm not sure I actually read it, for it had been read to me so often that I had it memorized, but I can remember going through it and pointing to each word as I recited it. It was an illustrated child's version, of course, and every chapter ended with the phrase, "…and the moral of this story is…." In one of the stories, the industrious, provident ant worked all summer storing food while the frivolous grasshopper played and slept in the sun; then winter came, with its inevitable results. The moral was obvious, and it applied personally; I could see my father working in the fields all summer to make hay and grow corn and potatoes, while my mother canned garden produce. We were ants, and so were most of our neighbors; we knew some people who were grasshoppers, and I saw how they lived. To a five-year-old, this was reality, not metaphor.

I was two years old when the Gershwins' opera, "Porgy and Bess," opened in Boston. I wasn't aware of it then, but some years later when the individual songs began to become popular, I thought "I got plenty o' nothin'" was offensive when I heard it on the radio. I knew nothing of the context of the song then… I hadn't encountered poverty, segregation, or exploitation yet… so the thing that came to mind when I heard it was the ant and the grasshopper. Growing up in a farming community where the central ethic was the value of work, I couldn't imagine how someone could sing "nothin' is plenty for me." I hadn't learned any academic biology yet and I assumed animals think like people do, so I was puzzled that squirrels seemed to be the only creatures of my acquaintance that made any effort to lay up supplies for winter. Rabbits and birds didn't plan ahead, and yet they seemed to get by just as well; apparently, nothing was plenty for them. Things like this bothered me at the age of eight or ten.

How the mind makes connections between observations and memories is one of the last great unsolved mysteries in science. While I watched the waxwings and starlings stripping the crab tree, my mind went back to childhood and mused about how they would wish they had saved some crabapples later this winter, and Porgy's song came wafting through my mind again, just like it did 65 years ago. I was amused to find that it didn't bother me any more. Age probably has something to do with it… few things bother me as much as they used to… or maybe studying biology for 50 years has brought some understanding of animal behavior. I now know that squirrels don't consciously plan to store food for winter, any more than they consciously decide to grow thicker fur; it is all the result of hormones and instincts. Some creatures survive the winter because their ancestors developed an instinct to store food; others survive because their ancestors developed instincts for a variety of ways to find food, or to adapt to unusual foods in times of scarcity.

We humans started out the same way, but we spent the last 50,000 years or so learning to make fire and invent wheels and agriculture and language. What we store is ideas, and with them we control our environment in ways beyond the capabilities of animals. Somewhere along the line we invented the idea of giving gifts for Christmas. Most of the gifts are things the receivers don't really need, but we feel better for giving them. So when I filled the feeder with sunflower seeds last month, among the first of its visitors were nuthatches, whose normal diet consists of insects; they would survive without the feeder, but I feel better for feeding them. And they let me watch them; maybe that's their Christmas gift to me. So if anyone reading this is trying to think of a Christmas gift for a child, give them a bird feeder and a copy of Aesop. That will have a better effect on them than the latest computer game, although you may have to wait a few decades to see the result.

Read other articles by Bill Meredith