Dinner Conversation

By: Jim Virkler; ©2013

When we strike up conversation with friends at dinner, the topics raised revolve around the importance of discovering the interests of our friends and new acquaintances. Are our dinner partners interested in politics, history, or music? Do we enjoy telling about our respective family histories? Is the newest technology a subject of conversation? Or does weather or neighborhood wildlife provoke interest?

Weather and wildlife strike an emotional chord with this correspondent, especially when the wildlife adapts to changes in seasonal weather. When deeper conversations falter, these lighter topics help rescue the dreary dead space in our dialog. Weather is inextricably tied to the changing angle of the sun above the horizon from season to season. In light conversation, our neighbors might simply say, “The days or getting shorter” or “The days are getting longer.” Of course, there are many causative factors related to day length. The sun’s changing angle relates to the number of hours the sun remains above the horizon. Our conversation partners may generally acknowledge that a high sun angle means a brighter, warmer experience in summer. The relationship of day length to sun angle, however, does not necessarily explain the cause of either.

Each year after the passing of the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year in the northern hemisphere, my uncle reminds me by phone that the days are lengthening–slowly at first, then quickening as the winter weeks pass. He also mentions a less well known phenomenon. Sunrise times after the December 22 winter solstice change hardly at all for many days, and may even be later for a time. But sunset times become noticeably later after December 22. Surely we may take heart in early January, knowing that the winter may be on the wane.

“Not so fast,” we caution. Our intensifying winter cold does not begin to wane for six or seven weeks after the winter solstice. This relates to the fact that the earth loses more heat by radiation than it gains from the sun up until the first week of February, even though days are getting longer. This heat deficit still overwhelms increasing day length for a while. Weather enthusiasts may be able to explain the cause related to this effect and why the cause relates to the effect: the earth’s orbit is not circular, but elliptical. We are actually closer to the sun in January. Earth orbital speed actually changes depending on our changing distances from the sun. In addition, the earth’s axis is tilted with the same slant all year long with the result that we experience interesting and refreshing seasonal changes. If readers do not understand, you should at least believe that it happens!

If humans take note of the vagaries of weather and seasonal changes, we ponder whether neighborhood wildlife is aware of these changes. As expected, the answer is affirmative. For those animals choosing to remain in our cold climate all year around, how do they modify their winter behavior? Among many observable entertaining antics of our feathered neighborhood friends I must highlight some cold weather adaptations of two of my favorite animals—cedar waxwings and robins.

Cedar waxwings are among the flashiest and most attractive birds to entertain humans. In winter, our neighborhood valley is often graced with large flocks of waxwings swooping and swerving as a unit through the air. Other times, as though obedient to a collective imperative, a large group alights on our bare walnut tree braches. They sit in groups, preening and enjoying the sunlight. At other intervals the majority of the flock will quickly plunge into red cedar trees to feed excitedly on cedar “berries.” The birds take their name from this feeding obsession. I have never observed this behavior in warm weather. Our neighborhood waxwings stay mainly out of sight during the summer, probably intent on raising their families and gathering different food.

Robins were not present in winter in Central New York where I was raised. In northwest Illinois robins seem common in winter, even though winter temperatures and other weather extremes may exceed New York state. The attractive robin has learned to manage during the below zero conditions we periodically experience as have groups of bluebirds which sometimes gather in small groups on extremely cold days.

Most remarkable is the tendency of waxwings and robins to sit close together on branches in the middle of the winter, obviously enjoying the company of a different species. The most entertaining events relate to the two species’ exuberant communal feeding on cedar berries. The two different birds more often remain with “their own kind,” in winter, but I have witnessed the integration of waxwings and robins a number of times. As I write, I do not see either bird, together or in the company of their avian relatives.

In ten or fifteen minutes since completing the previous paragraph, about eight different species of birds arrived in our back yard aviary to entertain themselves and us with their behavioral bedlam. It’s as though they were celebrating the departure of windy below zero temperatures and several snowstorms of the past few days, affirming that “All is well.”

A passage from I Tim 6:17 is appropriate: “God richly gives us all things to enjoy.” Rom 1:21, though describing more dire human failings, laments that some people did not glorify God and “…neither were thankful.” The pairing of these verses is an appropriate exhortation to the people of God to counsel us even in our everyday experience. We sense that all creation sings to the glory of God. The joy expressed in Psalm 66:1 is appropriate as we experience the beauty of God’s created works: “Shout with joy to God, all the earth!”


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