Ralph Gardner: Counting Down To Springtime

Apr 14, 2018

Ralph's wren box
Credit Ralph Gardner Jr.

Some years, this being one of them, spring needs a little encouragement. So I went out and bought a wren box at my local hardware store, Mario’s True Value in Valatie, NY.

If it sounds like I’m giving Mario’s a plug that’s because I am. And not just Mario’s but every other local hardware store that manages to survive in the face of competition from the likes of Lowe’s and Home Depot.

Don’t get me wrong. I love the big box stores, too. There’s a sense of well-being that comes from walking aisles as long and wide as city streets filled with nothing but doors and windows, or purchasing AAA batteries by the dozens while calculating how much more money you’re saving than if you bought them in rational quantities.

But the local hardware store feels a remnant of an earlier era, the fifties perhaps. Where employees doubled as neighbors and trusted advisors when it came to picking stains or helping you find the right hinge.

The hardware stores in our area appear to be surviving, if not necessarily thriving. I suspect the reason is that customers appreciate the primal connections between home, home improvement and community. 

Think of your hardware store as a giant utility drawer, albeit one where you have to pay for every nail and screw. Though it seems to me nails are one of the greatest deals of all time. How much effort and expense would it take to smelt your own? But you can buy boxes of them for only a few bucks. 

I’m not sure how I got on a hardware store tangent. Ah yes, springtime. The wren box was an effort to persuade myself that, despite snow and frigid temperatures, spring is just around the corner.

And if you’re the doubting sort, my advice is to watch and listen to the birds. Bluebirds are scoping out our bluebird boxes. Male goldfinch are starting to live up to their names -- shedding the drab plumage of winter for the dazzling yellow of mating season. 

When you awake in the morning it’s no longer to winter silence but to the language of birds seeking spouses and shopping for homes. So there actually is a connection between hardware stores and spring. Both serve as temples, palaces, shines, altars to domesticity.

And then there’s the quality of the light and the lengthening of the day. It’s only a matter of time until I’m having cocktails on our sundeck with cherry tomatoes plucked from our garden. 

Are you aware that what triggers birds to migrate isn’t the rising temperatures that allegedly accompany spring, but light? 

Though it’s anyone’s guess what sort of mixed signals global warming is sending. If the indigo buntings and scarlet tanagers that make their way here from down south, in some cases from as far away as Central America, waited until it warmed up they might never leave Costa Rica.

The purpose of my purchase of a small wooden wren box – beside the fact that it was cute with a small opening suitable only for wrens – was also to encourage the species’ return. 

We used to have a wren that made its home in a hole behind an outdoor light on our front porch. My recollection – it’s many years ago – is that something catastrophic happened to its shelter. 

It may have been as innocent as an electrician fiddling with the light fixture or as destructive as someone spraying insecticide down the opening. In any case, the wren never returned. 

But their song is beautiful. So fifteen bucks seems a small investment if the result is awakening to their song outside my window on spring mornings, warm or otherwise.

This morning, while taking out the recycling, I heard the liquid notes of several cowbirds for the first time this season. They were perched at the top of a nearby tree. 

Cowbirds have a reputation for laying their eggs in other birds’ nest and leaving the feeding and raising of their young to their hosts. 

Apparently, it works for them. 

But despite being fed and raised by, say, song sparrows, cowbirds don’t grow up thinking they’re sparrows.

You know, in the way the chick belonging to Dr. Seuss’s good-for-nothing Maysie Bird emerged an “elephant-bird” after the loyal Horton – “I meant what I said and I said what I meant, an elephant’s faithful one-hundred percent” – sat on Maysie’s nest throughout the winter and hatched her egg when mom moved south to Palm Beach and decided to relocate permanently.

What we often forget is that some years, most years in these parts, spring is synonymous with heartbreak. I vividly recall senior year of college in Vermont when there was a heat wave before spring break and people were sunbathing in shorts and bikinis.

I was looking forward to returning to campus for a final blissful, unacademic semester but my recollection is that the sun rarely shone again before graduation.

Checking the long range forecast it appears that temperatures will be rising soon to seasonable levels. OK, I take that back. It looks it’s going to warm up and then return to cold and clammy for a while. But like our avian buddies who have been at this a lot longer than we have, it’s probably wise, and therapeutic as well, to stay focused on the light. 

Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.