Let us praise the humble bird feeder. It keeps alive some of the small birds that try to tough out the harsh winter in places like northern New England. Here in Maine the state bird is the black-capped chickadee, a cute, perky, backyard regular that flits off and on the feeder as it dines on sunflower seeds. We don't tend to think about birds of any type as we curl into our cozy beds in the evening, but on any cold night, the chickadee outside our window is facing potential death.
Research has shown that, to survive a night of even modest cold (32 degrees Fahrenheit) a chickadee has to lower its body temperature by almost 20 degrees so it won't burn up all of its body fat before morning. Even in a state of semi-torpor, the chickadee shivers all night. It tries to find the warmest place it can to roost—"almost any tight cranny or cavity (as can sometimes be deduced from their bent tail feathers in the morning)," notes naturalist Bernd Heinrich in his fine book Winter World. Snowstorms and prolonged spells of extreme cold can be fatal if the birds can't get enough calories to rebuilt their fat stores.
All of which is a modest reminder, if you live in a cold place, to take the time to stomp through the snow to refill that feeder. And to resist the urge to trim trees and shrubs so severely that the birds have no protected place to nestle. And to feel fortunate to have a warm bed on a bitter night.
In Case You Missed It...
• China—a country that has not been known for either free speech or the kindly treatment of animals—now has an animal-rights movement. More than 40 Chinese animal-rights groups released a statement opposing a new trade deal under which Canada will sell seal meat and seal oil in the world's most populous country. Because seal products have been banned in Europe out of concern that seals are killed inhumanely, Canada is trying to expand its sales in Asia. The leader of one of the objecting groups, noting that many Canadians themselves shun seal products, cited a Chinese proverb: "Do not give to others what you yourself do not want."
• The Golden Globe awards were a big night for environmental and animal-welfare figures. Best Actor winner Colin Firth was accompanied by his wife, Livia, who runs a popular shop in London named Eco-Age and promotes the wearing of what she calls "ethical and sustainable fashions." Last night she went so far as to wear a dress made of a type of silk that is produced without killing any silkworms. Her shop's offerings include the increasingly popular "ethical jewelry," which has more of an environmental component than I realized. As an eco-jewelry expert told The New York Times, "Customers don't realize that one wedding ring weighs 10 grams and causes three tons of toxic waste." Also at the awards ceremony, Claire Danes won the Best Actress globe for playing the remarkable Temple Grandin, who despite suffering from autism is a doctor of animal sciences, a professor and an author. Grandin, age 63, has made monumental contributions to both the understanding of autism and the humane treatment of livestock, to whom she feels a particular affinity because of the anxiety they can feel.
• This being the holiday celebrating the life and teachings of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., it seems worth noting that the reverend King is now widely cited by those in the animal-rights movement (perhaps even in China, though I'm just guessing). I can't find the original source of this, but several websites attribute the following quotation to him: "One day the absurdity of the almost universal human belief in the slavery of other animals will be palpable. We shall then have discovered our souls and become worthier of sharing this planet with them." His wife and son apparently became vegetarians. Again, I don't recall him ever discussing non-human animals, but it's interesting to see him drawn into a realm that for some people can be as emotional and controversial as that of civil rights.