Initially, I found it odd that a coworker would call me during evening hours. Odd, that is, until he asked the question. Breathing heavily from a late day walk, he blurted, "What's with all the robins?" When things that usually go unnoticed by the general public get attention, you know there's something pretty special taking place. I did a little data mining from the two local online bird discussion groups I belong to, one representing all of North Dakota, the other, Fargo-Moorhead.
A collective noun, as defined by the American Heritage Dictionary, is a word that "denotes a collection of persons or things regarded as a unit." Whether we are aware or not, the words are quite common and we tend to use them daily. Give it a little thought and the list of words describing groups of persons is amazingly long. Here's a short, off-the-cuff stab at examples: Army, band, congregation, constituency, audience, committee, class, kin, company, platoon, staff, gang, and team.
Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan first described the native people near the southern tip of South America - an area he named Tierra del Fuego - in 1520 during his historic circumnavigation of the world (historic note: Magellan didn't finish the trip, he was killed by natives in what is now the Philippines. Only one vessel from his three-ship fleet completed the three year journey back to Spain). His and other early navigators' accounts of encounters with indigenous Fuegians leave readers in wonder.
That we tolerate winters here in the Red River Valley is not in doubt. We may not like it, we may even despise it, but we somehow soldier through until the last of winter's snows have melted away and we get another go at a brief but glorious summer. But more amazing are the creatures outside our door, none more so than the insects. Many millions of different species inhabit nearly every corner of our globe.
Since the dawn of time the transmigration of species has been constant. Whether drifting on ocean currents, floating on winds across vast distances, or being assisted by various other means, organisms large and small have found ways to pioneer new areas. Nature is never static. Any one moment in natural history is just that, a moment, never to be repeated again. It's a vibrantly dynamic system. Humans have certainly aided and abetted a vast array of organisms in their movements. Since the earliest people walked the earth we've stirred the pot, so to speak.
Last weekend, I stumbled upon a curious scene. Sitting on the snow under a spruce tree was a blue jay. It looked cold but comfortable. Its feathers were fluffed a little and its head was turned and tucked into its back like birds do when sleeping. I was surprised it let me get so close without flinching; usually jays are pretty wary birds. Only when I reached down and touched it was the truth revealed. It was dead. In winter, birds and other organisms are focused largely on only one thing: survival.
Rosalie Anderson isn't one to let setbacks quash her desire for more in life. Not even the tragic loss of her first husband when the couple's son was nine months old. After years working as a secretary for a Lutheran church in Golden Valley, Minn., she married again; this time to Herb Anderson of Hillsboro, where the couple carved out a productive life on a farm north of town. Later with children grown and gone, milder winters beckoned the couple like it does to so many on the northern plains.
Mid-winter on the northern Great Plains is a time of trial and forbearance for its scattered inhabitants, both human and animal. Frequent storms, such as last weekend's whoppers, continually test our collective backbones. At times such as these, it helps to consider the early pioneers who endured the same conditions with considerably fewer amenities. I can't even get my arms around the thought of a frozen dirt floor, for instance.
Now what, Disneyland? It took until the 74th year of the Fargo-Moorhead Christmas Bird Count (CBC), but area observers finally topped the 50-species mark last Saturday. Indeed, so many birds were found that the previous record of 48 was not only surpassed, it was left in the dust. At day's end, a total of 58 species of birds were recorded, an amazing number for midwinter in the upper great plains. For those unaware, the CBC, now in its 111th year of existence, began as a way to bring attention to an alarming situation taking place at the end of the 19th century.
As a young child, one of the stranger memories I can recall is seeing a publication in December of every year featuring the predictions of Jeane Dixon, a prominent psychic of the day. I can't remember if it was National Enquirer or some other tabloid, but the issues trumpeted all sorts of impending doom and mayhem straight from the mind of Dixon. I gave it curious glances, but even at that age it was sort of laughable. I can't pretend to know the future, no one can.