For the Birds Radio Program: Signs of Spring

Original Air Date: March 15, 1995

According to Laura Erickson, signs of spring are everywhere, from the outdoors to CNN. 4:02 (Date verified)

Audio missing


March is supposedly the month when spring begins, but realists among us don’t bother to pull out swimming suits and rollerblades until at least May. Most insects and amphibians are sound asleep in the frozen earth, so naturally the birds that eat them are nowhere to be found yet. We won’t hear frogs singing and toads trilling for at least a month, but for those who really miss the sound of herps, one Newt is yammering away just about constantly. Of course, this one is too large for any bird to eat, but if we turn off the volume on our TV and put away those news magazines, we can search for prettier signs of spring.

Even with a foot of snow on the ground, icicles dripping from the eaves, and temperatures below zero at night, there is something of change in the air. Pine Siskins are flitting about in pairs, their sky-dances showing the bright, romantic side of these drab little finches. Some are probably already breeding. Siskins, like other true finches, have the ability to come into breeding readiness based not on day-length or temperature, but on how much food is available. They don’t feed their babies insects the way most songbirds do; they regurgitate conifer seeds softened and predigested in their crops, and since they only mate when plenty of cones are available, one parent can sit tight on the nest keeping eggs or babies warm while the other flies off to fill up. Also unlike other songbirds, true finch babies have more and thicker down feathers to survive those nasty moments while the parents are trading places.

Male Downy Woodpeckers are drumming and hammering out their love songs, apparently having learned to express their masculinity at a Robert Bly workshop. As usual, nuthatches are complaining. All year they utter those whiny little notes, griping about the weather and politics and the baseball strike, but now there are at least a few romantic songs among the sour notes. Of course, you have to be a nuthatch to appreciate the love songs. To the rest of us, they sound like more complaints. And whether it’s nature or nurture, their babies will eventually turn into chronic complainers themselves, and may even end up hosting vitriolic radio talk shows.

Crows are lugging sticks from one tree to another now. They often nest in tall spruces, but it’s not easy to locate the nests. We had a pair nesting right in our backyard one spring, and didn’t even discover it until the eggs were ready to hatch. As noisy and raucous as we think of crows, they’re wary and careful around their nest, secretive so their eggs or tiny hatchlings won’t fall victim to murderous gangs of grackles. Our crow’s nest was so well shadowed and concealed that even with my spotting scope trained on it, the only movement or sign of life was the mother’s blinking eyes. To make up for their quiet moments on the nest, crows are especially fierce when they encounter an owl or hawk, so if you hear a really loud cacawphony, check it out.

Chickadees are singing their sweet songs, trying to impress each other with the urgency of presidential hopefuls in Iowa and New Hampshire. Chickadees never make false promises or change their policies to fit the latest polls, but like aspiring politicians, every chickadee does its best to avoid drafts. Unlike presidential candidates who flit from one place to another, often changing their plumage to fit their audience, we won’t see the migration of too many birds for a while yet, so we might as well sit back and enjoy the birds, loons, and turkeys we already have.