For the Birds Radio Program: Valentine's Day 1989

Original Air Date: Feb. 14, 1989

How do birds celebrate the holiday of love?

Audio missing


(Recording of a Black-capped Chickadee)

It might not feel like spring to you yet, but it sure does to the chickadees. Since the days started lengthening in December, hormones have been surging through their tiny blood vessels, turning their thoughts to love. Chickadees give their chickadee-dee-dee call any time of year—that’s how they communicate within a flock. But when they want to catch the ear of a potential mate, they want a more romantic sound, the sweet whistle ringing through the north woods just about every day now.

(Recording of a Black-capped Chickadee)

That song could even be heard on those minus 20 degree days last week.

Chickadees aren’t the only ones lusting in their hearts on this Valentine’s Day. Downy Woodpeckers beat out their love song on the loudest, most resonant drum they can find.

(Recording of a Downy Woodpecker drumming)

Downies and chickadees take their time getting to know each other before they start excavating a nest hole and actually moving in together—courtship is half the fun for them. Owls are also courting now, but they get right down to business. Great Horned Owls will start nesting within a few weeks in the northland—long before winter is over. That means the mother owl must sit on the eggs from the time she lays the first one, or it will freeze. Other birds, which wait to nest until the weather is milder, don’t begin incubation until an entire clutch is laid. Since baby birds can’t develop without heat, the chicks in broods of most species are all about the same size. But with owls the first egg laid is the first to hatch, and that owlet is bigger and stronger than its younger siblings. Pictures of owl families often remind people of human families—the young are staggered in size just like Wally and the Beaver. In a good year all the babies may survive, but in a bad year, the oldest and strongest gets all the food. This may seem cruel for the smallest and weakest, but it’s one natural strategy for insuring that at least one of the young will make it. Owls, after all, aren’t romantics like chickadees—they’re the realists of the bird world.

Mourning Doves are calling their mournful song now.

(Recording of a Mourning Dove)

Most Mourning Doves head south in fall. Their feet are susceptible to frostbite, and most of the seed they eat from the ground is covered with snow. But a few just about always decide they’d rather face the cold than the dangers of migration. If they have a good supply of food in the morning and late afternoon, they can spend most of the day with their warm tummies pressed against their feet.

As the days grow longer, birds can get enough food with a few minutes to spare each day, and can spend more and more time singing. Long before the first real migrants return, the North Woods will again be ringing with bird song—White-breasted Nuthatches

(Recording of a White-breasted Nuthatch)

and Pileated Woodpeckers

(Recording of a Pileated Woodpecker)

Crows are starting to carry sticks now. They may be loud most of the time, but they’re extremely secretive when nest-building. Jays often build a false nest or two before they actually decide where they want to raise their babies. Yes, birds may not say it with flowers, but on Valentine’s Day their thoughts are as much on love as any human.

(Recording of a Blue Jay)

This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”