It began with the tufted titmouse. As I crossed the library’s parking lot, the bird’s voice caught my attention, which seemed odd knowing that titmice live year-round in Massachusetts. I probably hear them every day, but this was February 2, the day when winter-weary humans pin their hopes on groundhogs. With no rodents in sight, I was listening to a “spring” song: “Here, here!” The bird wasn’t forecasting the weather. Indeed, as the National Audubon Society reminds us, “its whistled peter-peter-peter song may be heard even during mid-winter thaws.” Nevertheless, these few seconds of song put me on high alert for the transition to spring, for those early signs of reawakening.
Ten days later, on February 12, I heard male red-winged blackbirds singing from a patch of reeds in the Hockomock Swamp. Conk-a-ree!
Red-wings are among our earliest migrants, with males starting to arrive in late February and females following a few weeks later, though some of these blackbirds remain in Massachusetts throughout winter. On President’s Day, a small flock gathered in a conspicuous tree at Burrage Pond Wildlife Management Area in Halifax, while a few individuals perched in the adjoining marsh. Singing was light and sporadic.
Why do they begin singing so early? We can certainly expect more cold and snow this season. The explanation is that these birds coordinate their breeding to daylength, a stable phenomena that doesn’t fluctuate like temperature or weather. As this article from Vermont Public Radio explains, "the increase in daylight in late winter triggers the production of hormones in male birds, which causes them to sing.” Naturalist Bryan Pfeiffer memorably compares it to “birdy Viagra.” The male birds establish territories and attract mates through song.
Several other species begin singing early in the season. Are you hearing the northern cardinal’s loud clear whistles or the black-capped chickadee’s sweet, two-noted song? I recorded this particular cardinal at the library last Friday. The chickadee (with a cardinal and some hammering in the background) sang at Burrage on 2/20. Note: You may need to adjust the volume to hear each bird well. Unfortunately, suburban sound recordings contain significant background noise.
Mass Audubon’s blogger, William Freedberg, also lists mourning doves and common grackles as early-season singers. Have you heard others? Share your observations including date and species by emailing A Glimpse of Nature.
Earth’s cycles impact all of us, not just the “early birds.” Sunlight and day length affect human mood and metabolism: just ask anyone suffering from seasonal affective disorder or the snowbirds who head to Florida. Our inventions and cultures often thwart natural cycles, and we make accommodations. For better or worse, daylight savings time begins March 12, just a little over two weeks hence.
very interesting , the brids calls, we hear them all year but especially in spring!
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