Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Return To Normalcy? A Little Bird Told Me

Tufted titmouse
Dare I say the words? Dare I?

After two-and-a-half months of cold, snowy, miserable weather, the sudden onset of daytime temps in the 50s and 60s and overnight lows in the 20s and 30s has this cooped up bushman thinking spring.

Lest you think I'm jinxing things by speaking out of turn (it's only mid-February for God's sake), I'm not the only one. The signs are flitting back and forth around my backyard.

First and foremost, many of our resident bird species are taking the change in the weather as a cue to start stretching their vocal chords in preparation for the courting season. Song sparrows, northern cardinals, eastern towhees and Carolina wrens are filling the warming air with their songs. Some of them sound a little rusty after their long hiatus, but so did Pavarotti when he decided to stop lip-syncing.

Red-bellied woodpecker
Despite a lifetime of birdwatching, I am ambivalent/leaning toward chaffed in regards to one member of the growing choir. During the weekend, I heard the telltale drumming of a woodpecker on the make. Normally, this would not trouble me, but the incessant ratta-tat-tat seemed disturbingly close - like, on-the-side-of-the-house close. There are two reasons for a woodpecker to start pecking at your siding; it's either found a spot with particularly good acoustics that help broadcast its romantic intent far and wide, or it's found wood-eating insects burrowed in there and it's getting a meal. Neither of these potentialities does much to ease the human mind. With an anxious heart, I slipped outside and patrolled the grounds, looking especially up under the eaves where I feared my feathered friend would be snacking on an infestation of termites or carpenter ants, thereby putting the spotlight on a much larger problem. Thankfully, our little Rat Scabies turned out to be a lovesick red-bellied woodpecker who happens to have chosen to use the side of the owl box I put up last fall as the bullhorn to find his Juliet. I don't envy the eastern screech owl that, at least for a time, was roosting in there. I imagine it must be something like living inside a snare drum.

Pine siskins
Curiously, Sue and I are seeing the return of a few birds that haven't been around in such numbers since before the deepest, darkest winter descended. This is especially true of the pine siskins, two of which arrived February 11 to fill up on black sunflower seeds and thistle. A way back in October, we hosted a few siskins for about a week. Pine siskins are small members of the finch family that breed in high elevation, boreal forests and are seen only occasionally during the winter as they come off the frigid mountain tops in search of food. In  some years when the seed crop is particularly poor, siskins and and other northern finchy types irrupt southward in massive flocks, much to the delight of backyard birdwatchers. I hypothesized at the early arrival of our siskins (along with several purple finches) that this might be such a year, but after staying a week or two, we never saw either species again - until now.

Dark-eyed junco

White-throated sparrow
Their arrival a couple of days ago seems to coincide with an influx of white-throated sparrows and dark-eyed juncos, both of which have been present throughout the winter, but now there seem to be a lot more of them scurfing around the yard where we scatter white millet for their benefit. If I had to guess the reason, I'd say the sudden abundance of siskins, juncos and white-throated sparrows indicate these traveling gypsies have sensed a shift in the season and are filtering their way back north in preparation for spring migration.

Regardless of the reason, we certainly welcome them back. I do, however, reserve the right to withhold services and kick their sorry asses back to wherever they came from if it all turns out to be a big tease and winter isn't done with us yet.

C'mon spring, we're waiting on you.


  1. Don't get too eager. That's where I always fall down the hardest on my winter doldrums...just when it seems like spring has sprung, we'll get hammered with a seemingly interminable stretch of cold and gloom. It drives me into a funk every time. You'd think I'd know better.

    But the critters seldom lie! You guys got hammered this year, so (not that fairness has anything to do with the weather) you really are due a break.

  2. You're right Phillip. I started dreading what I had done the second I hit the "Post" button. I'm setting myself up for a fall, but my God these last few days have been glorious! And with the forecast calling for 67 on Friday, it's just going to make that inevitable fall that much worse. Oh well - by July I'll be complaining about the heat.
    Thanks for commenting.