The old year’s cycle is nearly over and a new one begins

Barbara Hootman Columnist

Soon, the year will be behind us. We have watched it shrink season to season, month to month and weeks to days. Some will count it down to the last minute. It has been a year rich in the everyday small events of nature.

In nature there is timelessness and endurance. Surrounded by uncertainty and inconsistency, it is good to be comforted by the constant and enduring qualities of nature. It is in the endless repetition in nature that we find the most assurance. Spring happens again with new growth, and new birds sing ancient songs. And summer follows right on time, and fall takes up residence as the year ages. And winter blankets the Valley.

Purple Finches are showing up at backyard feeder this time of the year. They definitely add a bright note to darker days. Troy Peterson, naturalist, described the Finch as “a sparrow dipped in raspberry juice.” Knowing if you have a Purple Finch or a House Finch takes some close observation.

The Purple Finch is chunky and big-beaked. The House Finch has a more slender body and a slight curve downward of the beak. The Purple Finch’s conical-shaped beak is the largest and most powerful among all the Finches. The upper mandible of the House Finch curves downward. Purple Finch males are delicate pink on the head and breast. The pink mixes with brown on its back and with creamy white on the breast. The female Purple Finch has no red on her. She is streaked with strong facial markings, including an off-white eye stripe, and an obvious notched tail.

The male House Finch is a rosy red around the face and upper breast and has a streaked brown back, belly and tail. It also has a red rump that is conspicuous in fight. Adult females aren’t red, but plain grayish brown with thick, blurred streaks and an indistinctly marked face. They feed at feeders, on the ground and on weed stalks. They move more slowly than most birds and sit still as they shell seeds, crushing them with rapid bites. They have a bouncy flight like many Finches.

Purple and House Finches enjoy black oiled sunflower seeds and Nyjer seed. And sunflower hearts are a real treat. Both the Purple and House Finch can often be seen eating together. Both are dressed up sparrows.

With a range covering most of North America, the American Robin is one of the most recognizable birds in the country. It is an industrious bird, out and hunting by dawn. Since it was one of her favorite birds, my German grandmother had no problem substituting it for the European Thrush in the Christmas story of how the Robin got its red breast. There are many legend attached to Christmas, and this is one of my favorites. It has taught many children about good deeds and selfless acts.

My grandmother opened her story with the description of the Robin as a once nondescript brown bird. As the legend unfolds, the night the Christ child was born was a cold one and Mary had trouble keeping them warm. The wind blew a cold breath through the stable, unrelenting throughout the night.

Mary ask the ox to blow on the dying fire but he was sound asleep in the hay. She ask the donkey and sheep, but her plea fell on sleep-closed ears. She began to lose hope, but then she heard the flapping of wings. It was the little Robin. It carried dry sticks and flapped its wings forcing the cooling embers to life. It flapped its wings until it was exhausted. The flame rose suddenly as the fire sprung to life and the Robin’s breast was burned red.

Despite being hurt, the little bird continued to flap its wings and to keep the stable warm for Mary and the child. Mary blessed the Robin and told him that forever its red breast would be a reminder of its good deeds.

It is time to set up the Nativity scene for another year. The figures are old, some coming from childhood. Joseph still holds the lantern illuminating the scene, and Mary remains on her knees in the straw, awaiting the arrival of her son. The Christ child does not become part of the scene until midnight as was the custom in my grandmother’s home. There are donkeys, cows, camels, chickens, ducks, oxen and doves in the stable scene.

There is a small cat keeping a wary eye out for mice. There is a rooster waiting quietly to crow the good news of a special event at dawn.

Keep out plenty of fresh water for drinking and bathing.

Merry Christmas, and May you always hear the whisper of wings.