For the Birds Radio Program: Signs of Spring

Original Air Date: March 29, 1995

Today’s For the Birds gives us some tips on searching for spring. (3:20) Date verified.

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Spring has officially sprung, but North Country bird life isn’t much different than it was while it was still winter. Owls are already acting twitterpated, hooting up a storm and starting to nest, but owls always feel a romantic surge at the end of winter. Owls always seem so serious and reserved, but the large broods of baby owls produced every spring prove that the adults must let their feathers down at least occasionally.

This year there weren’t any northern owls hanging around anywhere to speak of. With so little snow, they had an easy enough time finding mice further north. But the early return of saw-whet owls makes up for the absence of more exotic species. Nothing in the universe is as cute as a Northern Saw-whet Owl—not even a Blue Jay. Great Homed Owls begin calling before dusk, and sometimes continue for quite a while after the sun rises, and Barred Owls get so wrapped up in their emotional outbursts that they sometimes sing at midday. But the poor little saw-whet Romeo is in so much danger from bigger owls that it waits for night’s cloak to hide its pleasant little balcony scenes. The big owls are calling quite a bit already, and they’ll be continuing through when the ground thaws and frog music begins. A night of frogs trilling, woodcocks dancing in the sky, big owls hooting, and saw-whets making their delightful whistles makes for an incomparable musical treat, all the more precious for its ephemeral nature.

Owls are usually the birds making the first serious jump on winter, but this year even ravens got fooled by the mild winter, and nested way too early in Superior, Wisconsin, eventually losing their babies to the February cold. It takes time for little ravens to grow feathers, and until they do, their many patches of bare skin make them vulnerable to cold whenever their parents leave them unattended. Ravens and their crow and Blue Jay relatives are the most human of birds, in their social structures, their loyalty to their friends and family, their intelligence, and, apparently, their foolish optimism. Pine Siskins are apparently nesting now, too, but their optimism is at least realistic—their fluffy babies have plenty of thick down to protect them if their parents must both be gone at the same time.

Kestrels are back on telephone wires and power lines, the little sentinels of open country. Blackbirds and robins have been in tropical Minneapolis for weeks, and now they’re pretty easy to find even near Lake Superior. Other hawks and eagles are also on the move, and on blustery clear days they’re a joy to see, gliding on the wind, wheeling and circling the big sky with abandon.

Lake Superior often holds spring at bay until May, but even when the ice is piled up and cold fog makes it seem like winter will never loosen its grip, those who know birds can find plenty of signs of spring to keep us from despair.