We think we are tough, but we are not. We think we are like gods, but we are just poor featherless bipeds when the gas goes off and the pipes freeze.
Usually, swaddled in my pleasant, middle-class American cocoon of house, car and office—all insulated and heated, mostly—I rather like being reminded that Nature can do as she pleases. Last week, though, it was too cold for too long and, frankly, winter started to feel not like our normally mild, sunny payoff for long hot summers endured, but more like what it is most places—a too-vivid foretaste of death.
Eighteen degrees two nights in a row was too cold for Tucson; too cold for the fluffy pink geraniums in my window box (even if the sheet hadn't blown off Wednesday night); too cold for the now-demolished prickly pear; too cold for the new-laid hummingbird eggs in the nest a friend was watching; and much too cold for me. Although my house was warm enough, the sense of a limitless outside gone foreign and hostile kept me from sleeping both nights.
(Was I worrying about global warming? Yes, I was. Because it was cold?! What a silly-willy! Sorry. I just find scientists to be more credible than shills for extractive industries.)
Anyway, when I got to the office on Thursday, the birds were palpably frantic. I work on the northeast side, and my window looks out into a bosque right next to Bear Creek. You can feed the birds there without being inundated by pigeons and house sparrows, and on that icy morning the finches, woodpeckers, cactus wrens and yellow-rumped warblers were stuffing themselves as fast as they could and quarreling in the frigid air.
The sugar water in the hummingbird feeder had frozen solid. I quickly got that fixed, which was of course observed by the dominant male Anna's hummer who thinks he owns the joint. He barely waited for me to step away before tanking up at length on faintly steaming sucrose and then setting up to guard the feeder with a level of aggression I've never seen before. One trembling, fluffed-up female or young male after another tried to feed only to have him drop down like a tiny, pink-headed Death Star, hovering inches away and darting in to attack with his feet and beak. At one point, a particularly bleary, shivering bird he hassled turned her head and grabbed him (maybe by the foot—it was all very tiny and fast) and didn't let go. They both fell to the frozen ground, where they were still struggling when I walked out and, by just approaching, broke up the fight. ("Oh my God! It's a giant! Scram!")
Finally, I filled a couple of unused feeders that were sitting around and deployed them out of the bully's sightline to give the other hummers a chance. (And no, I was not getting much work done.) All the while I felt sick, knowing that I hadn't thought to check the feeder at home before I left and that Ed was gone for the day. There was nothing but a chunk of ice for the Anna's male who hangs in our front yard. On Friday, he was nowhere to be seen.
But on Saturday—when, like the rest of Tucson, I crept out into the returning warmth to survey the damage and start cleaning up—he was back sitting at the top of the mesquite, squeaking and clicking and showing off as if nothing ever happened. Where he went and how he made it those two frozen nights, I'll never know.
Why am I so concerned about the birds? Well, first off, I'm a sap. A guy I used to know once tried to annoy me by observing that sentimentalists are people who care more about the suffering of animals than God does. This definitely makes me one, since as far as I can see, God doesn't care at all. The generations of animals and of men are born, suffer and die without succor or cease. And then we make it worse by screwing up the weather.
On the other hand, my preoccupation with the welfare of the birds in the cold snap was undoubtedly heightened by the fact that there was no heat in my office on Thursday, and that I, too, was bitterly cold until the space heaters appeared. It felt as if we were all at the North Pole together.