Bushtit Barrage

by Rex Burress

It was a dark morning along the river pathway in a late December series of storms. Overhead, in the live oak, I sensed movement, and dangling from a wet twig was a Bushtit, breathtakingly tiny in a harsh world of wrecking weather and rough woods.

The little gray bird was not the only one in the low branches - the tree was alive with movement - stirrings that shattered the rain droplets to the ground. A whole colony of Bushtits were fleecing the foliage, gleaning some type of insect or eggs from tiny crevices until the branches were cleansed as if by a devouring pesticide chemical - only the birds do it better and healthier.

Maybe they had finished that phase of processing, because one bird went swooping across the pathway and down into the dark ravine, quickly becoming swallowed by the void. Almost immediately, two or three more broke away and followed. Then another, and another, and another until about 30 birds had descended over the edge, staying in a group, although I couldn't understand how they could keep track of one another, but somehow, they cluster together, well, like birds of a feather, seemingly taking comfort in company.

There is a gallant feeling to see those tiny birds out in the rigors of the world forging their own way in life. Even though the gale-force winds strike through the night, they endure to go flouncing through the forest with renewed energy with the coming of the dawn. They seem to be searching for food most of the time, in competition with the kinglets and warblers. I don't know how much time they have for leisure since they are in and out of my life in a flash, but I do see the waterfowl in the river doing a lot of loafing.

Some forms of life definitely have a greater burden in surviving with less time to spend in leisure. Vultures circle in the sky for hours watching for something dead, and there must be days when they don't eat at all. Predators go lean when the populations of other animals are decreased.

The Bushtits hang on somewhere during those storms, and even though the Nature Designer has equipped them with insulating feathers and a strong grip, they must sway with the branches during those night winds in what would seem like a most fearful matter. I always thought about those things when I was a boy in Missouri, when the night storms not only heave with wind, but freezing temperatures sometimes congeal the rain into ice, breaking limbs and frosting the forest. Above it all, the birds survive - juncos, quail, jays, chickadees - at least some, to fly forth in the dawn in defiance of destructive forces.

I also know that the Bushtits build a massive hanging, sock-like nest in the springtime, a pair working relentlessly to create an impressive threaded castle unique to their species. Often that structure hangs well into winter, becoming visible in the leafless branches as a clear indication of their industrious disposition. The entrance hole is designed in the side, and they lay a large number of eggs, which is an amazing accomplishment from such a small bird.

"It isn't by size that you win or fail ... be the best of whatever you are...." Even though many species of animals depend on size for sexual dominance - especially mating elephants, gorillas, and boa constrictors - determination and spirit often override larger obstacles. Why was the Bushtit designed to be such a small bird? Hummingbirds fall into this small scenario too, and they succeed in maintaining a position in life even though mountains loom over them. Whether the living spirit is embedded in a Bushtit or a bear, there is no choice but to make the best of what you've got. But for the grace of the Maker, you, the human reader, might have been a Bushtit rather than a Homo sapiens. (Maybe it is your misfortune not to be a Bushtit, considering their gift of flight!)

So when I see a winter colony of Bushtits busily browsing through the branches, I feel an admiration for those entities into life, and an appreciation for the beauty they add to the environment. The development of the ingenious feather is a wonder to behold, and to have those feathers propelled in the wildlands by a living creature of a diminutive stature adds an interesting dimension to life for those who watch.

Whether its the Bushtits along the Feather River in a rainstorm or the Northern Cardinals foraging along a fence row in Missouri snowfields, you know a wonderful variety of living things help to enhance our passage through life.

2002 Rex Burress
December 28, 2002