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Michiana Chronicles writers bring portraits of our life and times to the 88.1 WVPE airwaves every Friday at 7:45 am during Morning Edition and over the noon hour at 12:30 pm during Here and Now. Michiana Chronicles was first broadcast in October 2001. Contact the writers through their individual e-mails and thanks for listening!

Michiana Chronicles: Christmas is for the birds

Crows in South Bend
Brett McNeil
Crows in South Bend

We were in the kitchen cleaning up after dinner when our five-year-old approached, his furrowed face a mask of deepest concern.


“Is Santa real?”


Mom and I exchanged glances.


“What do you mean?” I stalled.


“Faith said Santa isn’t real. She said Santa is your mom and dad.”


I asked, “Who’s Faith? Is she in your class?”




I said very carefully, “I don’t know what she’s talking about.” And pivoted, “If there’s no Santa, who eats the cookies?”


The boy looked away, quizzically, and the crisis sputtered to inconclusion. Later that night while brushing his teeth our son paused and said, “Mom and dad eat the cookies.”


We remain in limbo on this topic.


Thanks for nothing, Faith!


Truth be told, I know where she’s coming from. You see a set of reindeer antlers on a Jeep, red nose in the grill, and who’s kidding whom?


The woman at the drive-through window speaks for us all: “Happy Holidays. Straw’s in the bag!”




Once a month for the last year a small group of us has gathered for a walk in the woods with St. Joseph County Parks naturalist Jan McGowan. The December trip was at St. Pat’s and toward its end, in a trailside clearing just north of the boat launch, we happened on a small flock of Cedar Waxwings mobbing a stand of late-season, high-canopy berries. So much movement and color – the bandit eyebands, lemon bodies and lurid Pop Art wingtips and tail. Just a riot of life and small beauty.


There are something like 33 billion chickens on the planet and maybe about 100 billion wild birds. I read about the chickens in a New York Review of Books essay that began, “If you are a bird, odds are that you are a chicken.” Those odds work out to be something like one-in-four – one fattened fryer for every three wild birds on the wing.


How about a planet where every fourth animal is a dog?


To find a tree full of Waxwings in delight, in December, just by looking, just by putting yourself where they might be found, where other impossibly hardy and over-wintering so-called common birds are almost certainly to be found – Kinglet, Nuthatch, Chickadee, Cardinal, Downy – is the seasonal revelation.


The bird news is bad. More than half of American bird species are in decline, per Audubon. But they are still out there.


Great and perspicacious conservationists saved the Dunes, the Redwoods, Yosemite, the Boundary Waters. They killed DDT and saved the Bald Eagle. Their lessons all still apply and perhaps can be re-learned but I don’t know. There is a lot more ambient noise now. A lot more lassitude.


And old habits: On the bank opposite St. Pat’s, someone built a new house on a sloping riverside lot and cut down all the trees.


Upriver, in downtown South Bend, American Crows cloud the air, roost noisily in other trees. They are in town for the winter, here for the relative warmth of an urban heat island, here for safety in numbers. A common but still very wild creature, intelligent and observing, wary and social. They are unbeautiful flyers, champion kibitzers.


Cranes at Jasper-Pulaski
Brett McNeil
Cranes at Jasper-Pulaski

And 90 minutes away near Medaryville, the holiday season reverse-migration of Sandhill Cranes – an event Aldo Leopold likened to a “ticking of the geological clock,” a mass visitation of giant, awkward, ancient and haunting birds whose ancestors were alive in the skies 50 million years ago.


There were at peak this year 33,000 cranes in the fields at Jasper-Pulaski, part of a population that now numbers around one million.


At Christmastime 1940, there were only about 1,000 Sandhills left anywhere in North America.


That’s the same year Ralphie got his Red Ryder BB gun in the movie.

Since the release of A Christmas Story 40 years ago, average global temperatures have climbed about one degree Fahrenheit.


We approach this Christmas at the end of the hottest year in human history.



For Michiana Chronicles, I’m Brett McNeil.





Field recordings by Brett McNeil. Audio editing by Tony Krabill.

Photos by Brett McNeil

Brett McNeil is a writer and essayist in Mishawaka, Indiana. His radio essays have aired on WVPE and WBEZ and his writing has appeared in the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times, Chicago Reader, Crain’s Chicago Business and elsewhere. He is a former newspaper reporter and columnist and is the recipient of writing awards from the Chicago Headline Club, Illinois Press Association and Inland Press Association. Brett is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin and the University of Illinois Chicago. He works as an investigator in a law office. Reach him by email here