For the Birds Radio Program: Valentine's Day 1987
(Recording of a Great Horned Owl)
Tomorrow is Valentine’s Day–marking the martyrdom of either one or two early Christians, both named Valentine. There are records of a priest named Valentine who was beheaded in Rome in 269 AD. There are also records of a bishop named Valentine who was beheaded the same day in Terni, which is about 60 miles from Rome. They may or may not have been the same man. Proving any theory about St. Valentine is about as easy as proving what color the dinosaurs were.
But many of the customs Duluthians follow on Valentine’s Day really don’t have anything to do with the saint’s life–instead, our traditions come from ancient beliefs about birds. In the ancient Roman calendar, what is now February 14 was the day the birds were said to mate. The Old English belief was that birds did choose their mates on February 14, but the avian romances weren’t actually consummated until later– probably because Britain is further north than Rome.
Here in Duluth, it’s true that many birds begin selecting their mates in February. A couple of weeks ago, the Boreal Chickadees flocking with Black-caps in my neighborhood decided three was a crowd. Two of them started chasing each other around until one finally drove the other away. Now the two remaining Boreals are inseparable, although they won’t actually mate until May when they return to their coniferous forest home. Most White-breasted Nuthatches and Downy Woodpeckers are also paired off now. This week the Black-capped Chickadees became restless, and I’ve seen them in a few high-speed chases–that means they’re choosing mates, too. These pairs will remain in their winter feeding flocks until spring actually arrives–they’re safer in numbers, and they can’t start laying eggs anyway until the danger of freezing is over.
In most species of birds, the female doesn’t start to incubate her eggs until she has a full clutch. A Mallard may lay fifteen eggs, one every other day for a month, but she won’t sit on any of them until they’re all laid. As long as they stay cool, the embryos won’t develop. When she actually starts to incubate the full clutch, the babies will all develop together and then all hatch out at one time. That’s why a family of baby ducks all look like they’re the same age. Most songbirds lay one egg a day for four to six days–and, like ducks, they wait to sit on any of them until the clutch is complete.
But owls are different. Many owls nest earlier than other birds– probably so the young owls will be ready to start hunting on their own when baby mammals are at their most vulnerable stage. So the Great Horned Owl usually nests in mid-winter–beginning right around Valentine’s Day. Once she lays the first egg, the female owl can’t stay off her nest for any length of time, or the egg would freeze, so owls start incubating as soon as the first egg is laid. Great Horned Owls lay two to five eggs, a couple of days apart, so by the time the last one hatches out, the first owlet is quite large. That’s why when you see a picture of baby owls sitting together on a nest or branch, they look like they’re all different ages. It’s also why the most appropriate Valentines have pictures of Great Horned Owls.
(Recording of a Great Horned Owl)
This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”