For the Birds Radio Program: Beware the Ideas of March
The month of March can be tricky for birds to negotiate, but their worst problems don’t originate with a single day like the Ides of March. They come from the bright ideas birds have to start migration before they should.
When I was a freshman in high school, our English class read Julius Caesar, and I first encountered the portentous words, “Beware the Ides of March.” Sure enough, the next time March 15th rolled around, our family cat died, so it was a message that has stuck with me for life.
March 15 can be a very bad day for birds, falling within the month that migration can be stopped dead in its tracks with blizzards and ice storms. But those can happen any day in March. For birds, it’s not the Ides of March, it’s the Ideas of March that gets them into trouble.
The first idea of March that can be a bad one is for birds wintering in the southern states to start migrating during a balmy spell, only to be hit with bad weather. The worst victims of this bad idea are Tree Swallows and bluebirds, who sometimes arrive in the north well before the insects they need are available. Bluebirds fare a little better because they are better at finding and extracting nutrition from berries, but both birds suffer mortality. It’s heartbreaking for people to peek into a bluebird box and find one or more of these lovely little birds dead.
Another of the bad Ideas of March is to nest too early. We’ve had some warm weather in Ithaca in the past couple of weeks that has set our Canada Geese to mating and working on nests. Even geese that are quite old turn into teenagers in love in spring, and they just don’t think things through. Last year, the first geese to nest and hatch out eggs lost all their babies to the hungry snapping turtles that were first emerging right when the goslings were at their tiniest and most vulnerable. The geese who more sensibly waited until April to nest managed to raise most or all of their broods. Of course it can be argued that there are way too many Canada Geese as it is, so maybe I shouldn’t be giving them any bright ideas, but even if you know there are too many geese, there is something so innocent and sweet about a tiny baby goose that it’s hard to not feel sad when you’re watching a family of six young babies following their devoted parents everywhere, and suddenly it’s a family of four, then two , then one, and then none. Pine Siskins and redpolls reach their highest levels of sociability and being twitterpated in March, a bad idea right when soil is warming up enough to release soil-borne bacteria that can infect wet seeds on the ground where hundreds of these birds collect and feed one another. Every spring there are salmonella outbreaks among these finches thanks to their ideas about friendly gatherings.
Of course, not all of the avian Ideas of March are bad ones. As much as we don’t want birds to arrive too early, we can’t help but celebrate the morning we hear our first robin singing away, or watch the Red-winged Blackbirds all displaying in top form atop cattails. Although the dawn chorus won’t reach its glorious peak until late May or early June, it starts kicking in in earnest in March. This month birds are bursting with ideas, and even if those ideas kick off behaviors that will end in heartache or death for some of them, the burst of daylight, occasional warm temperatures, and hormones of March are what makes the world go round.