Last weekend was a happy time at Magpie Ridge, which is the name Suezette and I have given our place west of Gilby, N.D.
It was Valentine’s Day, of course, which is meant to be a happy time.
Valentine’s Day has a connection to the bird world. It’s celebrated as a day of love because the birds begin their nesting cycle about this time every year.
Or at least they do in Italy, where the idea of Valentine’s Day began.
St. Valentine himself is an obscure figure, perhaps a bishop, perhaps a priest, likely a martyr. Maybe he left a card with a young woman whom he helped escape persecution by Roman authorities.
There are a number of pretty stories.
By coincidence, though, the day chosen to commemorate Valentine, whoever he might have been, occurs when birds begin mating.
So its association with love making and home building.
This is not altogether foreign even in a place so distant from Rome. Among the birds, love is in the air.
Not love, perhaps, but biological necessity.
The birds clearly are ready to get about the work of reproducing themselves and perpetuating their species.
The signs of this are many.
The first we noticed here at Magpie Ridge was the reappearance of the nuthatches. For some reason, we had not seen them through the winter. Perhaps it was an oversight on our part. Perhaps we just lost them in the swarm of pine siskins that overwhelmed our feeder operation. Perhaps they found another food source. Or perhaps they didn’t find the shelter they need to survive the winter at our place. Some trenching last fall—to boost Internet service—took out a number of dead trees. Dead trees appeal to nuthatches because they often have cavities in which to snuggle up against the cold. Chickadees do this, too, and chickadees also were absent—as far as we know—during the winter.
Woodpeckers, however, we had in abundance. Perhaps the woodpeckers, which are larger than chickadees and nuthatches, moved into the available holes, and the chickadees and nuthatches had to look elsewhere.
But they are back.
This was evident on the morning of Valentine’s Day—a chilly, windy morning, you’ll recall.
But the nasal, “Whank! Whank!” call of the nuthatch was quite audible, even loud.
So, too, the whistled spring song of the chickadee: “Fee bee!” This is a rather drawn out whistle, with the second note on a lower pitch.
These calls amount to advertisements. The birds are saying, “I’m here!”
The nuthatches and the chickadees will establish territories. Then their calls change from advertisement to invitation, from “Here I am!” to “I am ready!”
For us human observers, these calls are announcements of the coming spring.
Redpolls accomplish the same thing in a different way.
Redpolls are noisy birds just about all of the time. Redpolls love a crowd, often forming flocks of dozens, even hundreds. They must be obvious to each other. Calls help keep the flock together, but they aren’t much use in advertising a single individual.
Redpolls have another way of doing that.
They change color.
This is common in the bird world, of course. Many species are much more brightly colored in breeding plumage than they are in migration or in winter.
Goldfinches are a well-known example of this seasonal dimorphism. In winter, these are plain, greenish birds with prominent white wing bars. As spring advances, male goldfinches become bright yellow, with black in the wings and on the top of the head.
But not quite yet. Goldfinches are relaxed about this. Their nesting season comes much later, well into midsummer.
Redpolls, by contrast, are in a hurry.
On Valentine’s Day, Suezette called my attention to a bird eating sunflower seeds we’d tossed onto the deck. It’s red, she said.
The bird was a redpoll in what’s called “eclipse plumage,” moving from winter to spring attire. This involves a rather sudden blush on the breast. The cause: Hormones. Male redpolls blush before breeding.
The redpolls are in a hurry because they are northern nesters. They’ll be moving out almost any day now, heading for the High Arctic. Summers are short there, and so redpolls must breed, nest and rear young in a very short time.
The process starts before they leave their winter quarters, which include our backyard.
These backyard birds are showing us the season is moving along, and that nature moves at breakneck speed.
Other evidence of this arrived from Devils Lake, not far west of the Red River Valley. Responding to last week’s column, Charlie Christianson reported he’d seen horned larks there.
Horned larks are the first migrants to return to the Red River Valley.
Redpolls are the first winter residents to leave.
For both species, it is time.