Snow Angels

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Photo by Joan Heffernan
Enjoy watching the antics of the “snow birds” like
this dark-eyed junco for a few more weeks
before they head back north in mid-March.

During the winter when we were kids, our house always smelled of wet wool. At night the steam radiator would be covered with our hats, mittens and gloves and we would wake up to them still a bit damp and filling the house with their wooly smell. But my parents weren’t about to let some sopping wet outerwear get in the way of unleashing us on the neighborhood, rain, snow or shine. On snowy days, we’d head out the door, and my friend and I would spend the morning making snow angels. We perfected making as few tracks with our feet as possible, falling back into the snow and moving our arms and legs to make the wings for our angels. Then the trick was to get up and head off without leaving telltale tracks. We had other angels to check on in the neighborhood as we were lucky enough to live next to the owner of the local grocery store. He often drove his station wagon home at the end of the day with neat promotional items that we were happy to eat including the latest in new-fangled junk food. Once he arrived with a piece of Dentyne the size of a toaster. But what we really liked about him could be found in his cellar. You see, he raised black angel fish when he wasn’t working around the clock at John’s Foodtown. We were captivated by row upon row of burbling tanks in his subterranean laboratory. We would peer into each tank looking for the elegant diamond-shaped angelfish in some stage from spawn to mature fish. We had never really thought too much about the life cycle of a fish at that point but were wide-eyed checking out each tank and its residents. Our neighbor had come from a long line of fish lovers and was happy to tell us about his progeny. He developed a little side business with his fish by selling them to Bradlee’s pet department. But really he was in it as a departure from his work and as a way to celebrate these exotic looking fish who could trace their roots to the Amazon Basin. Clearly, his hobby elevated his status in our eyes, and he usually had to shoo us home after we had worn out our welcome and filled his cellar with the smell of wet wool.

These days we have our own snow angels in bird form at the feeder for most of the winter. They are the dark-eyed juncos; a grey and white sparrow who hops around the ground in search of seeds day after day. These juncos cover a wide territory with color variations found in certain regions including the western part of the country. After breeding in the coniferous forests in the north, they make a nest on the ground and lay three to six eggs in the nest. The adults take care of the chicks until they are ready to fly on their own. When the cold weather arrives, these snow angels arrive back here from the north and are happy to mingle with other birds under our feeders or in the shrubs. They are one of the most common birds at the feeder in the winter, but their understated elegance defies their ordinariness. Recently we tried to find out how they got their name, and one theory is from the Spanish word meaning rush, as in the vegetative form living near wetlands. I cohabitate with someone who at one point immersed himself in the Spanish language, so he likes to employ his Spanish accent and call them “yunkos” which brings a smile to my face and helps me think about things like tapas and sangria on these cold winter days. But when I am back to reality, I can’t help but notice all the hopping the juncos do. They sometimes leave tiny feet marks and an imprint of a wing or two on the snow in my yard, miniatures of the snow angels we made as kids. So, the junco can be my little snow angel and he reminds me of being a kid which is pretty appealing on a cold winter day.

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