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Small signs of spring appear despite cold weather

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By Sylvia Brockner

January is flying by with severely cold weather.

January is the coldest month of the year, according to the National Weather Service, and it certainly has been this winter. Many nights have been well below zero, and the wind-chill factor has made some of them feel as cold as 20 below.

I am beginning to wonder if I will ever thaw out. Bill and I always took part of his vacation in February because by then I was getting cabin fever, and we always went south so we could have some warm weather and enjoy some early-spring birding. I am already missing that trip to look forward to.

I am, however, enjoying the slowly lengthening days and have my fingers crossed in hopes there will be no 4-foot snowstorms in March this year.

A friend called the other day to tell me he had seen a pair of gray foxes copulating in the yard last week, and I saw the high-speed treetop chase of a pair of fox squirrels, which is the prelude to their breeding, at about the same date. It was the first sunny, warmish day we had had for a long time. So maybe the critters think we are going to have an early spring.

Gray foxes usually breed in February or March so that after a 51-day gestation period, the young are born in March or April when it is beginning to get a wee bit warmer. By May the young are playing outside the den. They are well cared for by both parents and by late summer are taken with their parents on hunting trips until they learn how to hunt and feed themselves.

By fall they are capable of fending for themselves and are sent off to find their own winter territory. Males and females usually pair for life but separate over winter so as not to overtax the food supply in their breeding territory. He returns in the spring, and they stay together all summer to feed and raise the young.

Two people reported what they believed to be spring sightings of birds last week. One reported a flock of robins, and the other reported two robins at her feeder. This is interesting mostly because American robins are primarily worm eaters and do not usually come to feeders. They must have been hard-pressed for food to come to a feeder and might well have eaten suet or raisins had they been available.

They also might eat mealworms, but mealworms have such a hard outer shell that robins might not be able to digest them. At any rate, robins winter in the area in small numbers, and a goodly number were seen on the Christmas Bird Count. So, they are not really a sign of spring. During the winter, they can often be found scratching about under cedar trees and juniper shrubs, where they sometimes find insects wintering in the thick duff and can find blue juniper berries.

These two people had also seen red-winged blackbirds, two at a feeder and 200 or more in a flock in their yard. They also felt that they were early migrants. A few years ago, they probably would have been. I can well remember when a flock of singing male red-winged blackbirds in the first week of March was always a welcome sign of spring.

However, now that we have so many birdfeeders and cattle feedlots to supply them with food, there are a great number of blackbirds that stay here all winter.

Most of these birds spend the night in a native cattail marsh such as the one at Evergreen Lake and fly out every day to feed. They return at night to roost. However, they don’t do much singing in winter. Their gurgling “o-kee-lie” is not heard usually until March when the first migrants return, and they start defending nesting territories in the marsh. Then their loud calls and brilliant feather displays can be heard and seen all over the place.

Another early arrival, often seen mixed in with other blackbirds, is the brown-headed cowbird. They appear in early March but can hardly be called great singers. Their song, if you can call it that, is accompanied by grotesque movement of spreading their wings, elevating their tails, lifting their heads and necks upward and forward, and then fluttering, jerking and quivering, which gives them the appearance of being about to throw up something they have swallowed. All this effort brings forth a feeble croaking “glug, glug, glee.”

Cowbirds have little to commend them. They are nest predators, which means they lay their eggs in other birds’ nests, and leave them for the host bird to incubate and feed the young. The result of this is that most of the host birds whose nests they usurp seldom raise any young of their own.

Nothing attracts cowbirds to our yard as much as feeders filled with proso millet. Therefore, since I do not want to encourage them, I stop feeding millet on March 1 so there is no millet available when they return. When I do this, they don’t stay around long, and this gives the chipping sparrows, gray-headed juncos and other small birds a better change to have a successful nest.