For the Birds Radio Program: Fall's here!
August may be part of our summer vacation, but fall is here for many birds.
(Recording of a Yellow-rumped Warbler)
For most people we are now at the peak of summer, but the annual cycle of many birds is well into autumn. Early fall migrants, like shorebirds and warblers, begin appearing in the Northland as early as July. Some shorebirds spend only a few weeks on their Arctic breeding grounds–the length of days in the land of the midnight sun allow them to concentrate their breeding activities into the shortest period possible–after all, they have all winter to catch up on their sleep. Warblers that pressed northward driven by the urge to mate and nest as well as the need to migrate can head southward in a far more leisurely fashion. They join flocks of chickadees, nuthatches, and kinglets not so much for the camaraderie as for the protection from migrating hawks that additional eyes provide.
August is the month of congregations of swallows, gathering shoulder to shoulder on wires to make their travel plans, and the month of Cedar Waxwings, swirling in loose flocks through the late summer sky, alighting on shade trees and flittering out on flycatching expeditions. Box elder seeds bring in Evening Grosbeaks the way running smelt once brought in the mergansers. In this season of abundance, intimations of hard times impel nighthawks southward on light, moth-powered wings–the laziest will stop in Columbia, but most will make it all the way down to Argentina by Thanksgiving. August is a quiet month—a month of whisper calls and muted song. Snipe silence their wings, and Ruffed Grouse take a breather from the drumming that seemed almost endless a few weeks ago. The few White-throated Sparrows that try to sing one last round for “Old Sam Peabody” forget the words when they’re only half-way through. Starlings are too busy tending family business to bother with imitations of other species’ songs. All most birds seem to think about in August is that before they know it, winter will be here. Even the Blue Jays–ostensibly the most care-free of birds, are storing peanuts against the hard times ahead. I’ve been watching my neighborhood jays burying peanuts by the hundreds in my neighbor’s roof gutter–next time he cleans it out, he’s in for a big surprise.
Not all species are quite ready to say goodby to summer. Some local robins are taking care of a third batch of eggs or babies. House Sparrows, which will breed in December if they have a warm home, are busy with child care, too, as are Evening Grosbeak extended families. Goldfinches, which need thistle down to line their nests, can’t even begin to breed until many other species are done with children for the year. Goldfinches will be taking care of babies through September, though even they did most of their singing in May and June.
Deferring pleasure is not part of a bird’s mental make-up—perhaps because the future is too uncertain in a wild world where hawks and cats and picture windows lurk around every bend. So in spring birds eat every seed they can find, trusting that the gardener has planted enough to ensure a reasonable harvest. Now it’s time to feast on the harvest—robins are attacking strawberries with gusto, letting the juice run down their breasts and carelessly wiping their bills on the wood sides of my raised beds. Raspberries draw Purple Finches the way ice and snow lure Will Steger. Grackles are taking bets on whether my tomatoes will turn red before the first frost—they’re planning to be around to share the fruits of my labor, and I won’t even be able to begrudge them a few tomatoes since all summer they’ve been checking out the garden every few days for slugs.
Too soon the carefree days of August pass into the responsibilities of September. Enjoy its avian riches while you can.
(Recording of a Yellow-rumped Warbler)
This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”