The red winged blackbirds are back.
They were late this year and it seemed as if they knew the current state of affairs and just decided to bypass Southern Ontario for safer places up north. But then the first “ocaleeee” rang through the trees of the Victorian neighbourhood near us, from a high branch or the peak of a gingerbread-trimmed rooftop, flashes of red catching the eye as they moved about. And then there were more, and more again, like incidents of this virus, multiplying exponentially, so the cacophony is now almost deafening on certain blocks. Turns out, the blackbirds don’t care about current affairs. They return every March, regardless of whatever is going on with the humans they encounter, here to scream their fool heads off, decimate bird feeders, terrorize local cats, and generally welcome spring, pandemic be damned.
Despite the freakishly empty streets, this is heartening. Likewise the songs of the bluejays, chickadees and the laser blast of the male northern cardinal looking for love. Snowdrops and early crocuses are appearing in front yards, buds are close to bursting on various varietals of trees. The tips of privet hedge branches are a greener shade of grey than they were a week ago. The raggedy green leaves of the first dandelion burst from a crack in the soil against a sunny, south-facing wall.
Whatever the entire world is going through right now, spring is coming either way. We might not be able to get out and enjoy it as much as we normally would, but it’s massively reassuring to know that it’s happening and there’s nothing we can do — or have to do — about it. Some things do stay the same and there’s huge comfort in that.
Out in those desolate streets, where the eerie emptiness feels like a set for one of those “last person on earth” movies, the birds are not the only ones reveling in their new freedom. I’m regularly encountering skunk smell on my morning dog walks, and I worry that a fluffy ball of pew is going to come waddling out from under a parked car that hasn’t moved in days.
Traffic, both vehicular and pedestrian, has trickled down to less than five percent of normal, and of those that are out walking, most are accompanied by a dog.
A week ago, we’d still have passed shoulder to shoulder on the shared, definitely-not-2-metres-wide sidewalk, but now we see each other approach and do a version of that weird dance to determine who is going to step off the curb or cross the street. We wave nervously at people we know, or have stilted, slightly loud conversations from an appropriate distance, almost always about pandemic-related issues. We joke about grown-out haircuts or query about what stores are allowed to remain open.
In the row of townhouses behind me, where a dozen or more families with young kids have built a tight-knit community, complete with annual Canada Day BBQs, Easter egg hunts, and Halloween parties, you can tell that someone has devised a rota so each kid gets some time outside with a parent in the shared laneway each day. (And you can tell which Dads are crap, standing with a coffee, engaging only when absolutely necessary, unenthusiastically kicking a ball, but only when it rolls their way.) On Friday evenings in the summer all of the mothers gather on one front step for what we’ve dubbed “Mommy’s Special Juice Club”. We are dreading the first warm night when they try to do this while still social distancing, each one on their separate porch, yelling across the way while the giant glasses of red wine slosh on the concrete. Jesus, please let this be over before it’s warm enough for Mommy’s Special Juice Club.
Inside our building, it’s quiet. I almost never run into neighbours on my way in or out with the dog. We’re mostly taking the stairs, still wearing gloves and trying not to touch too many handles (yay, fob entry!) but we’re not even seeing our immediate neighbours coming and going. I think the folks across the hall, who go outside to smoke, might have given up the habit for the duration, as I can’t recall even hearing their front door open and close for days.
The joggers are still out in full force, more than in “before times”, refusing to give enough room when passing on the narrow sidewalks because it throws off their pace, or to revert to single file if there’s two or more of them. The inclination to buy some pool noodles and make a device that sticks out far enough to ensure social distancing is strong. But that would mean going out to a store, or forcing a delivery person to bring them to me and we’ve all got better things to do at the moment.
Such as listen to the birds. They know, it will all be okay.