For the Birds Radio Program: February Funk
February may be the shortest month as far as number of days goes, but it’s by far the longest in terms of how long it seems to last. We start the month in such a state of desperation that we drag poor little woodchucks out of their winter sleep in hopes that they’ll magically provide us with an early spring. Major League baseball teams start their spring training and gardening stores send out their catalogs, but nothing we do brightens the dreariness of what seems like an endless winter of our discontent. If conditions are right, the ice caves near Cornucopia, Wisconsin, can provide a lovely day of celebrating the season, but the safety of the ice isn’t as assured as it used to be. Before climate change was so noticeable, we could rejoice in a warm spell, but now we get more frequent ice storms and other miserable weather conditions that used to be characteristic of the south, not the upper Midwest. Rather than bringing a few days respite followed by fresh new snow, in recent years winter thaws just make skiing and snowshoeing treacherous.
One of our most beloved northern birds, the Gray Jay, also known as the whiskey jack and the camp robber, is having serious problems because of these winter thaws. Gray Jays start nesting right around Valentine’s Day, the females being devoted and attentive enough to spend virtually every minute incubating their eggs and then brooding their nestlings while the males find food. Gray Jays are one of those birds that spend a great deal of their time and energy building up their savings—in their case not of money but of high protein food items, such as chunks of meat and small dead animals, that they plan to feed their babies. They coat each food item with their copious and sticky saliva before caching it in a crevice somewhere. The saliva may have some antibacterial properties, but since it’s really just bird spit, it can’t do much in the face of temperatures rising well above freezing. Even when a winter’s average temperature is nice and cold, a couple of extended thaws can spoil a Gray Jay’s food stores. Like those humans who carefully planned for the future and are now watching their investments vanish, Gray Jays are helplessly watching their investments turn rancid.
Even though February seems ever more treacherous and depressing, there are definitely signs of hope out there. Chickadees are starting each day in full song now, calling out their most romantic “Hey, sweetie!” in hopes of winning the heart of a worthy mate. By Valentine’s Day, they’re hard to miss. Great Horned Owls also seem more influenced by Valentine’s Day hype than by the weather—they’re cozying up to each other right now, and in many areas are already nesting. As with Gray Jays, Great Horned Owl females incubate and brood while males provide the food, but unlike Gray Jays, owls don’t plan on keeping dead animals fresh—they eat them as soon as possible after killing them, often while they’re still warm. A Great Horned Owl would never consider giving chocolates or roses for Valentine’s Day—for him, nothing says “I love you” like a dead mouse, except maybe a dead rabbit. The red heart we associate with the day of love is even more appropriate for them.
Considering appropriate Valentine’s Day gifts for birds to offer their sweeties is a meaningless, trivial waste of time, but no more than pulling a groundhog out of the ground to predict the weather. In February, we take what we can get.