The bitter cold is dangerous for animals, including wild ones. One morning, a small goldfinch hopped into the garage, seemingly seeking refuge from the frigid temperatures (it’s been in the negative double digits with wind chill).
At first, I thought it might be an accident, that perhaps the bird was momentarily confused by the open door. When I approached, it flew a short distance away…which was strange. When it flew to another exterior door, it was clear the creature was just looking for a respite from the cold.
After we tried, unsuccessfully, to catch it in a net to examine it (it slipped right through the net’s holes), it flew back into the garage, where I left it so that I could finish the morning animal chores. When I returned, the bird was standing on the floor, eating some spilled sunflower seeds. If nothing else, it could warm up a bit in there, out of the wind.
I peeked in on it again a short while later, and it seemed lethargic – it was still on the floor, trying to eat seeds, but it was closing its eyes and just seemed too calm. I was already worried because wild birds should fly away – enthusiastically – when approached. Something was wrong, but I hoped it could gather its strength and go back outside when it warmed up.
I needed to take a look at it and make sure it wasn’t injured, so I slowly and quietly crept near it. Its eyes were mostly closed. I very slowly put my hand near it and was able to catch it, gently. It hardly struggled, also worrisome. There’s no way I should have been able to walk up and catch it in my hand.
Looking closely at it while trying to move it as little as possible, the bird seemed a bit dishevelled. Again, it didn’t struggle much, maybe enjoying the warmth of my hand? I filled a dropper with tepid water and tried to get it to drink. Once it tasted the water, it touched its beak to the dropper’s tip repeatedly and drank.
I placed it in a small hay-lined cage in the garage, with birdseed scattered on the floor. I intended to offer it water again later in the day, but thought it would benefit from some quiet. It was working on a seed when I left, but seemed to struggle with even that task.
When I returned to check on it a few hours later, it had died. It lay on its back in the hay, tiny and beautiful. I wondered if it was the same goldfinch I’d seen by the feeders a couple of weeks earlier that had, oddly, always been the last to fly away when we walked by. Had it been deteriorating for some time and, finally, finished by the brutal cold? We’ll never know. I wish it had survived a couple more days – warmer weather is in the forecast.
It’s difficult in times like this not to think that Nature is almost incomprehensibly harsh…but that’s only because we view it from a human lens. Nature is natural or, even more succintly, Nature is. The songbird hatched, lived, and died. In the end, I know my efforts probably did very little to help, but I like to think that at least it was safe from opportunistic predators and warm when it flew, for the last time, into the great blue sky.
I’ll honor its existence, however brief, by continuing to fill the tube feeders with birdseed and the suet baskets with (suet) cakes, and put out a shallow pan of water, with the hope that it might help some of our feathered visitors better weather the cold.
Interested in helping wild birds in winter? Check out this guide from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.