Bourne on a biting north-easterly wind, the first real snow storm of the season had swept across the landscape before nightfall. In its wake all was silent in the early morning sun-light. Life in our peaceful garden lay stark beneath an ice-blue sky, safely muffled in mounds of glistening powder.
I rose early, even before the dog had stirred, and moved from room to room in slippered feet. A frigid beauty surrounded our home. Honeysuckle was visible, dry and brittle, still clinging to the side of the deck. Tips of last summer’s plants pierced the snow, hinting at flowerbeds hibernating safely below. In the shadow of our home something small and dark lay nestled outside the window. Its softness hinted at a ball of fur or perhaps feathers moving imperceptibly. Was there life? Or had a light breeze disturbed it?
Throughout the morning the mound remained, unmoving, unidentified. Strangely by noon it appeared to be larger than it had been at dawn. Feathers were now clearly moving. Maybe a bird was sheltering from the bitter cold. A long black, grey and white striped tail was distinctly visible. Shocked, as I gazed out of the living room window, I suddenly understood. I had been watching one small soft ball. This time two birds were recognizable. A newcomer had arrived. It was busily stabbing at the body of the bird beneath it.
My husband joined me and looked carefully at our visitor. Then he spoke in awe. “It’s a shrike,” he said, “the butcher bird.”
His words immediately conjured up a gruesome image, a sight we had witnessed more than a decade ago when we still had our farm. We had found a tiny shrew, it lifeless body impaled on a long thorn in our hawthorn hedge; the work of a shrike. Here once again the hunter was at work before us.
We continued to watch. The body beneath the shrike was probably yesterday’s unidentified ball of fluff. Our ravenous visitor was gorging on its flesh; its hooked beak tearing and tugging. Had the shrike discovered its victim sheltering secretly? Or had the smaller bird died in the cold of that first night; a meal ready for the hungry? The prey was almost as big as the hunter who remained all day devouring his meal. When the sun went down, the shrike was still there.
Early the following morning, we discovered that in the eerie silence before the sun had risen again, our butcher bird had been busy. Only the wings and feet of his victim remained in a shallow hollow in the snow. Against the wall of the house, a very small white ball lay in the powder, the faint imprint of its wind-blown path still visible. That sightless skull of the victim, stripped clean of flesh, lay among scattered downy feathers, some grey, some brown, and some a soft red; the plumage from a young robin’s neck. That was all that remained of the unwitnessed end of its short life.
How shocking it is to realize that as a rule we are only aware of beauty in our moonlit winter nights! Yet that pristine landscape had been the scene of a desperate, lonely struggle for survival. Had I known this, would I have tried to rescue the robin from the grip of the shrike? Would we have recognized the butcher-bird’s own desperate need to find food? The torn surface of the once-fresh snow, scarred by a hunter’s clawed feet and the tips of frantic wings, is only temporary evidence of that struggle, yet thankfully it remains firmly in the memories of those who have been its privileged witnesses.
Gillian Williams lived in Ponte Claire and Rigaud before moving to Glen Robertson, ON. She had a 27 year career as Mathematics teacher and Head of the Resource Department of a PSBGM (later the Lester B. Pearson School Board) High School. Upon retirement a friend introduced her to a creative writing group in Beaconsfield, QC. She discovered joy when sharing emotions. For her the wildness of wide open spaces, nature’s beauty and cruelty, the sorrow of loss and the comfort of peace and love are topics that are catalysts for writing.