Chance finds signs of spring 

[Editor’s note:  This column was originally scheduled to run in the May Bugle but had to be held due to space constraints.] 

My early morning stroll keeps me in touch with the changing seasons. My direction and destination are set by chance … I mean Chance, our cocker spaniel. He picks what direction we’ll head and which corners we’ll turn.

It’s been great to see the weather improve. We’ve had a very challenging winter with lots of snow and some subarctic mornings. Thankfully, on those bitter mornings, Chance would quickly do what needed to be done and then turn around to head for home. No leisurely stroll for him, thank you.

I’ve enjoyed watching the return of spring in the neighborhood. Lots of folks think that robins are the harbingers of spring, but we have small flocks of them that stay over the winter. They may have found trees that still have their fruits or berries that they can eat.

For me, the first sign of spring is the returning of the male red-winged blackbirds. I saw and heard the first ones on March 17. There were three of them at the top of a tree, singing to each other. We saw another in the yard about five days later.

The older adult male red-wings return north before the others. They’ve had territory up here in prior years and want to be the first to claim it again. They’re followed by the females that will compare the territories each male is offering. Lastly come the younger males with little chance of setting up housekeeping this early in their lives.

Robins also do some things that indicate spring’s arrival. They start to sing their morning song, which serves to declare their territory and is an attempt to attract a mate. The males begin to squabble and chase each other with an intensity that looks serious. Apparently their testosterone levels increase as the days get longer.

Nearly every morning now, I’m seeing Vs of Canadian geese heading north, about 65 in one morning formation, honking as they go. Hope they can find open water where they’re headed.

Meanwhile, this is also the time of the year when I hear woodpeckers drilling away at tree limbs and trunks. Sometimes they’re working on a future nest hole, but often they’re trying to find the best resonance to declare their masculinity and attractiveness as a potential mate. And, unfortunately, sometimes the surface that most appeals to the whacker is your siding or the flashing around your chimney.

I also begin to see pair-bonding demonstrations by some bird species. Male northern cardinals will often offer food to the female to help strengthen their bond. House finches also share food.

One species I had not seen do this sharing ritual until this year was a pair of blue jays. I didn’t think a jay had a romantic bone in its body (that’s anthropomorphizing, buddy!). But I saw one jay offering food to another. I can’t tell male blue jays from females (unless, as I tell my wife, I can see the color of the hair ribbon).

Years ago I saw a pair of blue jays at the other end of the “bonding” spectrum. I looked out my kitchen window and saw a lump in the yard. I focused my binoculars on it and discovered it was two blue jays locked in mortal combat.

Each jay had one of its feet clenched around the beak of the other. Whichever bird let go first was going to get a sharp poke in the head. These had to have been males, trying to settle a score. I went outside to try to get a photograph, but they decided I was a bigger threat than each other, let go, and flew off.

I really think it’s spring, however, when I see the first returning common grackle and European starling. These birds can dominate and decimate my feeders, but it’s nice to see one or two of them as a sign of spring. Grackles try to intimidate one another by preening, puffing out the chest, strutting about with the beak sticking straight up. I think they miss out on food with all the posturing at each other!

And this time of year the male northern cardinal starts advertising his desirability as a mate. He takes a prominent perch and belts out his territorial/mating song. I think it sounds like what I used to know as a wolf whistle, followed by six or eight notes on the same pitch.

Another sign of spring, although not bird-related, is sighting the first chipmunk. For us, it was mid-March. That’s one sign that gets Chance’s attention. He freezes, staring at the critter (Is that what I think it is?), and then explodes in a lunging, barking frenzy which must take years off the chipmunk’s life expectancy.

I think winter is finally behind us and spring is here.

Clay Christensen lives and writes in Lauderdale.

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