Spring approaches slowly, bringing early migratory birds

Barbara Hootman Columnist

With migrants arriving on the Gulf and Caribbean shores, the season is already on the march, signaling the arrival of spring in fewer than 30 days.

Migratory timing is dependent on food supply and daylight. The early migrants don’t travel ahead of emerging insects that are rich in vitamin D. Even the seed eaters wait to nest until the supply of insects and worms that they need to feed their babies is plentiful.

No one told bluebirds to wait until mid-March, so many of them will be well into their first nesting of the season by mid-March.

Lyndall Noyes-Brownell, a local wildlife photographer and nature lover, participated in the Great Backyard Bird Count from Feb. 12-15 and reported 13 species and 59 birds in only an hour and a half. During a similar four-day period last year, more than 140,000 participants reported findings to the state’s Audubon Society. Data is not available for the 2016 count yet.

One pair of cardinals will claim the backyard on my mountaintop by mid-March. Another pair will stake out the front yard, and occasionally the males will threaten each other. Cardinals are ground-feeders and susceptible to being caught by prowling cats. They are continuing to pair up until the middle of March. Keep the cats inside, especially since baby season is coming up. Baby birds have no idea what a cat wearing a bell is and have no way of escaping a cat’s claws.

Blue jays are scouting for receptive females. Courtship is starting now and gets serious in March. Jays flock together in a group of about seven or eight, and all will be males except one female. The males bob their heads and strike poses for the female. She chooses one and another breeding season is in progress.

The loud jeering calls of winter Blue jays are gone, replaced by more of a whisper song made up of clicks, whirls, and parts of other calls. One spring bout of singing can last up to a couple of minutes. Jays will be in full voice by mid-March with only the males singing.

During nesting season the submissive Blue jay female becomes the more aggressive of the pair. A Blue jay pair builds a few practice nests, but the final one is built by the female and finished just a few days before egg laying begins. Although considered to be aggressive birds, they are dominated by woodpeckers, grackles, cardinals, doves and mocking birds.

Great Horned Owls are nesting. Their calls are distinctive at night as they stay in touch with each other. The male hunts and carries food to the nest for the female and takes a turn on the eggs to allow her to exercise for a short time. Soon baby owlets will be in the nest, begging for food. The baby that calls the loudest gets fed first. A baby that doesn’t have a strong begging call will often be overlooked by the female and allowed to die.

Carolina wrens are visiting feeders more now than at any other time during the winter. They enjoy meal worms (fresh or dehydrated), suet especially with seeds and peanut butter in the mix, and peanuts. Wrens often die due to intense cold weather. Having a reliable food source is essential in providing wrens with the energy and stamina to survive frigid temperatures.

Birds spend most of their energy finding enough food to stay alive during the winter months. Few other creatures burn food as quickly as birds. It isn’t the cold temperature that songbirds can’t survive, but it is the loss of natural food sources covered with snow and ice. It takes a small bird only a short time to starve to death from lack of food. Notice how often they eat at feeders during the day.

Birds not only need man, but man needs birds as well. Birds are a source of enjoyment. The birds help keep insect populations in check. They help pollinate flowers. When birds scratch and rustle through plant and leaf litter looking for insects or nesting material, they are helping the pollination process. Through droppings birds spread seeds. Some seeds become flowers, shrubs, trees and weeds that pop up in flower and vegetable gardens. Birds are good for human health. Research shows that watching and caring for birds can lower blood pressure and heart rates.

Goldfinches are beginning to color for breeding season. Wood ducks are looking for nesting sites. Spring waterfowl migration is underway, and Canada geese are mating. Winter wrens and sparrows are singing more complete songs.

Deer are dropping antlers, and rabbits are beginning to mate. Flying squirrels and chipmunks are breeding, as are coyotes

Baby bears hum when they nurse.

Keep out plenty of water for bathing and drinking

May you always hear the whisper of wings.