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Winter bird songs and first arrivals

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Ryan Schain
Red-winged Blackbird

Winters are confusing these days. This winter, for example, fell on a Saturday. For weeks on end we’re never getting below freezing, then for one day we’re making Northern Minnesota seem balmy. The very next day we’re back to a seven-day forecast with potential shorts days in the mix. And the birds are just adding to the confusion. If you poked your head out the door ever so briefly on that really cold Saturday, you may have been surprised by how much bird song there was. Has the weird weather finally driven them insane as well? No, it’s ok – they’re just going through their annual puberty.

“Surely you jest, Bird Guy”, is what I assume you are saying. I never jest – many birds indeed go though a sort of annual puberty in response to increasing day length. More light affects their endocrine system, with a rush of hormones increasing the size of their reproductive organs and jump-starting territorial singing in males. If you don’t believe me, just listen. All of a sudden, House Finches and cardinals are singing more and woodpeckers are drumming. It doesn’t matter if it’s -10 or if it’s 50 degrees – they are slaves to the increasing light.

One of the birds singing more in recent weeks is the American Woodcock, an odd, plump and performative shorebird of woods and fields. Singing is a strong word – their iconic breeding display consists of an insect-like buzzing sound followed by an impressive twittering, spiraling flight. While most woodcocks leave for the winter, a few hardy individuals make a go of it here, and this year their gamble paid off, since winter never came – it’s been November for three months now. These overwintering birds are the ones who start displaying in January, even occasionally in December, other males continue arriving from the south through March. People have already had up to three displaying males at a time in some of the classic woodcock spots in Barnstable, Falmouth, and North Truro. You’ve got plenty of time to catch one of their shows – males don’t really do anything other than display from now through June, they are too devoted to the stage to help the females with the chick rearing.

Speaking of performing males, last week I had my first singing Red-winged Blackbirds at Mass Audubon’s Long Pasture sanctuary, which is always a cheerful sign of eventual spring. Some of these short-distance migrants winter locally in pockets, others hop back from Rhode Island or New Jersey in late winter and start singing. Numbers build slowly at first, eventually peaking in April. The early birds are all males – competition for territories is strong, as a male with a good territory secures the right to mate with several females. Studies have shown, however, that these stud males are kidding themselves, as up to half of their offspring are sired by other males.

In the coming weeks, we can also expect the first Common Grackles, that noisy, decidedly less beloved cousin of Red-winged Blackbirds, and perhaps the first bona-fide spring migrant around here, as well as an influx of Turkey Vultures, another reliable late winter migrant, arriving to grimly search our beaches for dead marine animals. Since these two species are not exactly bluebirds of happiness, maybe focus on that increase in backyard bird song to aid your mental health in these remaining six weeks of “winter”, or whatever you want to call this season we’re in.

Mark Faherty writes the Weekly Bird Report.