Mother Nature is busy in late January

Barbara Hootman Columnist

The January thaw lasted one day a couple of weeks ago. After days of biting cold, the sun came out, and the temperature reached almost 60 degrees. In January we take what we can get.

The glimpse of spring provided by even a short thaw renews man’s faith that warmer weather, birdsong at chorus level and beautiful spring flowers will come again. We still have fickle February to deal with, and windy March, before April slides into the Valley with days filled with blooms and bird songs.

Late January brings the first signs that spring will happen again. If you listen closely you will hear bits and pieces of what will become the song bird chorus in April and May. Late January birds appear to be concerned only with survival and finding enough food, but inside their tiny bodies changes are happening. As the days lengthen, hormones work overtime to prepare them for another breeding season.

The notes they’re singing, as well as the simple phrases of bird song, are territorial flags being raised. It is pre-breeding season behavior. It will become even more important as winter wanes which is at least 6-8 weeks away. Despite their fine tuning and bluster about territories, they are concentrating on surviving winter. They must find enough food to build fat reserves to see them through the night. A song bird’s day is one long eating binge.

Song birds must feed from sun up to sun down, especially in cold weather. Encountering a situation that lasts 30-45 minutes that prevents them from feeding can be fatal. For the larger birds like crows or pigeons, a day or two of recuperating from an injury or just feeling on the blink and not hunting for food can be fatal. Birds must eat to survive.

A small flock of Mourning Doves visit the ground feeder every morning just as day breaks. They do a bit of pushing and shoving each other, and pass out wing flips. But they eat until they are full or something scares them away. They not only eat until full but fill their crops with seeds that can be digested later while they rest. They also swallow fine grit to help with digestion.

They do a good job of cleaning up seeds that are tossed or spilled from a platform feeder. They prefer to eat on the ground and are peaceful at daybreak, sharing the spillage with juncos and sparrows.

Some Mourning Doves migrate, but usually it is the northern birds that seek better digs and food farther south as the weather turns cold. Dove ranges extend as far as Central America. They are so abundant that they supply sport hunters with lots of targets. There are five subspecies of Mourning Doves, but they look similar and are not easily distinguishable. The U.S. has only three of the species.

Mourning Doves like corn, millet, safflower and sunflower seeds. They don’t dig or scratch for seeds, instead eating what is visibly available. They especially enjoy sunflower hearts.

Falcons and hawks enjoy a meal of Mourning Dove frequently. Cats also prey on doves since they eat on the ground. Rat snakes eat their eggs and young doves in spring.

Both male and female Mourning Doves look alike. There is a faint pink cast visible on the head, neck and chest feathers of both male and female. The males have an iridescent neck patch. Both have red legs and feet.

The cooing sound they make seems depressing to some human ears. Others find it sad but comforting. Their wings make a high pitch whistle when the birds take flight. Male Mourning Doves are opinionated and aggressive when defending their territories. They puff up the crop and neck and run at an intruder. Doves spook easily, which sometimes causes them to fly into windows and die.

They are monogamous and usually mate for life. One pair can produce as many as six broods a year, but three is the usual count. Each nest contains two offspring. The nest is a flimsy piece of work that often winds up dumping the eggs or worse the babies on the ground in a storm.

Both parents regurgitate rich “crop milk” to feed the chicks for the first four to five days, and then begin mixing seeds with the “crop milk” formula for up to 14 days. In two weeks the offspring are self-feeding, feathered and ready to fly.

Mourning Doves are considered to be closely related to the extinct passenger pigeon. When they sleep, they don’t tuck their heads under their wings like a song bird, but rather they rest their heads between their shoulders close to the body.

Keep out plenty of water for bathing and drinking.

May you always hear the whisper of wings.