Pay Attention to the Birds for Signs of Spring

Mar 21, 2018

Credit Patty O'Hearn Kickham /

With the weather forecast having become a skipping record of weekly Nor’easters, and temps below freezing every morning, yesterday’s arrival of astronomical spring does little but mock us. But as always, nature offers signs of hope if you know where to look and especially if you how to listen.


While I have been largely house-bound thanks to the arrival of my newborn son last month, I’ve been able to discern some hopeful signs in the behavior and abundance of certain birds and other critters around the yard, like the optimistic chipmunks that foolishly emerged from their winter slumber back on March 1st. More recently, I have twice seen my backyard Mourning Doves becoming decidedly amorous, so the recent storms have done little to dampen their spring sex drive. As I’ve noted before, day length is the key driver of spring behavioral and physiological changes in birds, and Mourning Doves are among the earliest of nesters around here, well before other resident birds. But they don’t typically have eggs until April, so these guys may have just been mating recreationally and reaffirming their pair pond, which some Mourning Doves maintain year round.

If you listen, you’ll notice that woodpeckers are drumming more frequently now. This is mostly an early spring activity, and tapers off by late spring and summer when they are busy rearing young. It’s not easy to tell the different species apart by their drums, but the Downy Woodpecker has a slower frequency than the much larger Hairy Woodpecker, on average. Flickers and Red-bellied Woodpeckers also drum, muddying the waters a bit for identification, but their drums are a little weaker than the previous two species. Though I’d guess that’s of little comfort to you when a flicker is hammering on your metal chimney at 5AM – ‘tis the season for that, as well.

I was also pleased to have a mated pair of bluebirds visit my yard the other day, hitting both the suet and the heated birdbath. I knew they were a pair because the male was clearly following the female around while singing, and was exhibiting behavior known as nest site searching. He checked out a small novelty birdhouse tacked to a pine tree beyond the deck – something we inherited from the previous owners – but there was no chance of the pair nesting there. The female has to approve of the nest site and always makes the final decision – she never even looked at the silly little house the male was showcasing. It reminded me of house hunting with my wife a few years ago, and had me feeling a certain kinship with the male bluebird. This was also a reminder to clean out my nest boxes.

Ospreys are now trickling back, right on schedule, with sightings in Orleans, Harwich, and elsewhere. While St. Patrick’s Day is when we typically expect the first sightings, a few exceptionally early scouts were reported from the Cape and Islands this year dating back to February. The first Piping Plovers also turn up around mid-March, but there have been no sightings north of Rhode Island yet. By the end of the month they should be easy to find where there is good habitat, like Nauset Beach, or what’s left of it after the barrage of late winter storms.

With our cold, wet, reluctant springs, we Cape and Islanders need a bit more faith than mainlanders when it comes to the arrival of spring. But lucky for us, when the weather won’t show us spring, the birds will – we just have to know how to pay attention.