The Signs of a Changing Climate in my Own Backyard

Every afternoon, our fledgling red-tail hawk returns to the neighborhood, crying as it flies. It has been crying for so long that at least one blue jay has learned to copy it. I’ve seen a blue jay deploy an imitation hawk call as a way to clear a bird feeder of rivals, but I took all my seed-feeders down weeks ago. This jay seems mainly to be entertaining itself, calling out desperate baby hawk cries, just for the fun of it.

I took my feeders down because there’s no need for them this time of year. The spent zinnias and coneflowers and black-eyed Susans provide plenty of seeds, and the beautyberries, arrowwood berries and pokeweed berries are ripe now, too. They all feed our resident birds and any migrants that light in these trees on their long journey. Soon the acorns will be ripe, and the Eastern red cedar cones and the American holly berries — enough for the squirrels and everyone else.

I’m especially fond of the pokeberries, which I did not plant. Pokeweed seeds are planted by birds, falling to the soil in their droppings. I have two stands of pokeweed plants, and they are magnificent, magenta-limbed and 10 feet tall. Pokeberries appeal to fledglings who haven’t quite gotten the hang of catching insects yet, but nearly all the backyard songbirds help themselves from time to time, and hummingbirds fattening up for their own migration find the pokeweed branches a convenient roost above the nectar feeders.

Already the fall wildflowers are beginning to come into their own. The goldenrod throws its yellow plumes into the air; ironweed and asters purple the fields and roadsides; snakeroot blankets the forest understory; anise hyssop and elephant’s foot flowers call to the bees on the naturalized side of our yard. All of them feed the insects that feed the birds who need fuel for the migration, or for surviving the winter at home.

Not everyone will survive. A basilica orb-weaver spider has built her cathedral outside our front door. Her web has been pummeled by rains again and again, but her pearly egg sacs, all strung together in a row, are safe. Every day I check them to be sure, and every day their mother watches me warily as I check.

She will guard them faithfully until she dies, and the last thing she will do is secure the guy wires they’ll need to guide them when they climb out of their sacs next spring. I have never seen the translucent spiderlings emerge to run along those strands into safe cover, but I will keep watch when the time is right. Always hoping.

Margaret Renkl, a contributing Opinion writer, is the author of the books “Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss” and “Graceland, at Last: Notes on Hope and Heartache From the American South.”

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