For the Birds Radio Program: Spring Is Coming!

Original Air Date: March 1, 2004 (estimated date)

This year we’re enjoying many early signs of spring, along with some late winter birds.

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Spring Is Here!

March first has always been considered the official first day of spring for birders in the US, because not long after that date birds begin to move. With climate warming trends, birds have been moving earlier and earlier—soon the date may have to be moved to February first.

Some year-round resident birds always start singing in January and February—chickadees and Downy Woodpeckers and White-breasted Nuthatches always start making their breeding calls in mid-winter. Now that cardinals are breeding in Duluth, we can hear them singing in earnest beginning in February, and sure enough, the male in my neighborhood has been singing in the morning since the last week in February.

Crows have also been acting twitterpated. For weeks now, as if responding to Valentine’s Day hype, my neighborhood crows have been divebombing one another in romantic flight displays and making romantic rattle calls. I’ve been watching some of them carrying sticks now, working on their nests.

But it isn’t just the resident birds that are becoming roused from winter mode. Bird migration seems to have begun in earnest now, at least the early stages. Bald Eagles and Red-tailed Hawks are circling in kettles over stretches of Interstate 35 now, using the thermal air currents that form over the highway to help as they mosey northward. As ice breaks up on Lake Superior, eagles, crows, and gulls are gathering on the decaying ice to eat bits and pieces of fish and ducks that died over the winter. Before plants open up, food is at a premium. Last week I watched a a few Mallards on the Mississippi River struggle with a small fish, one first trying to subdue and down it, then drop it and another one pick it up, for a good ten minutes, but then an eagle flew over, and in all the commotion I lost track of the ducks.

In farm country around the Twin Cities, there were lots of Horned Larks running in the bare patches where the snow has melted, or picking at seeds in the crusted snow. Every now and then a whole flock would ascend to the sky, larking about as if they felt spring in the air.

During the next few weeks, the first grackles and red-wings will suddenly appear, as if by magic, along with robins and killdeer. And in the water, suddenly ducks that spent the winter sedately swimming and diving will suddenly and literally spring to life, doing their mating displays. Goldeneyes and Buffleheads seem to pop their heads back as they scoot on the water in an amazing dance. Hooded Mergansers will do raise and lower their funky crests. Of course, you have to occasionally pull your eyes skyward, just in case a romantic pair of ravens or eagles takes it into their heads to pull their Trillian and Arthur Dent routine with their amazing sky courtship.

Even as spring tentatively begins, some winter birds are hitting their hardest weeks of all, when food is scarcest and weather is unpredictable, with high winds and precipitation running the gamut, from rain to snow, and everything between. Great Gray Owls are suddenly appearing in the Sax-Zim Bog, presumably individuals that recently retreated here from farther north. A Snowy Owl appeared this past weekend in St. Paul, perching on rooftops and hunting in parks. It’s a hard season for birds, but so filled with hope for spring that energy and enthusiasm permeate the air. Spring is coming!