When is a bird a sign of Spring or not
Throughout the winter you may have your eye on some of the most well-known year-round resident Passeriformes – also known as perching birds and songbirds. These may include the Black-capped Chickadee, Northern Cardinal, White-breasted Nuthatch, and Blue Jay. You may also observe several varieties of woodpeckers including Downy, Hairy, Red-bellied, and Pileated. But there may be a few birds you are surprised to see because somewhere along the way you were told they are fair-weathered feathered friends.
I am not sure when and why people thought robins migrated – but robins, Turdus migratorius, in the Turdidae family, despite popular belief and a misleading Latin name, do not really migrate. Similar to Cedar Waxwings, Bombycilla cedrorum, they do fly in large flocks “migrating” around New England avoiding the storms. But when people think – oh, the robins are back – that means spring – take this to heart: they never left the region. Western MA is firmly in their year-round zone. During the winter robins eat berries – which are not generally on the ground, so look up into the bushes and trees. It’s true, you may remember seeing a robin tilting their head, listening for worms in the grass back in the summer, but it’s hard to hunt for worms in the winter with several inches of snow and frozen soil between you and your prey. Whereas berries are readily available and highly nutritious; packed with energy birds need. But, as those berries ferment on the bush and vine, due to freezing, thawing, and refreezing, and thawing again, robins can find themselves a tad inebriated. Hence, where we get the phrase (and song), “rockin’ robin”. However, those robins aren’t grooving to the music – they are drunk. Once they get their footing back, by March or April, you may begin to hear their springtime “cheerio” songs once again in the yard.
Another songbird in Turdidae some seem to think represents spring emerging is the Eastern Bluebird, Sialia sialis. That is the blue bird who has a red breast and a blue back. That is also the bird who has a song written about him. If you tilt your head to your “memory side” you may even hear it. “Mr. Bluebird on my shoulder….” Look up at the powerlines or into the forest edges and you may see a small flock of bluebirds. I usually see three hanging out together. Similar to the robin, the bluebird also changes their diet with the seasons, consuming available fruit in the winter. So, to be clear, there is no need to roll up hamburger meat to look like worms and hang said “worms” from twigs to feed what you think are starving wayward birds. I state this because I fielded such a query from a concerned birder. As the weather warms you will start to hear Mr. Bluebird’s “turee” tunes.
State-side Harbingers of Spring
The Red-winged Blackbird, Agelaius phoeniceus, is a sexual dimorphic songbird who live in wetlands throughout the breeding season, eating invertebrates and seeds. The male blackbird is black with red wing bands whereas females are streaky brown to blend in with the marshes where they nest and protect their chicks. Depending on the range map, though New England is within this bird’s year-round range, blackbirds in their northern range tend to be short-distanced migrants, flying to southern states in November to feed on seeds in the fields and returning in late February, congregating in large flocks in and near wetlands. You will see the males return first, singing and scoping out potential nesting sites. When you start to hear that raspy “konk-la-reee” song from the male, you know Spring’s return is eminent.
The Eastern Phoebe, Sayornis phoebe, is a light brown songbird with a white breast and a long tail. They use their tails to communicate with each other in the yard through tail flicking. Being a type of flycatcher, they catch flying insects on the breeze. This is why they need to fly to the southern United States in the winter, so that they have a food source, as there are not many insects flying about during the cold New England winter. Phoebes do not arrive until April and you may hear them before you see them, the males singing a raspy “Fee-bee! Fee-bert!” But then you know it really must be spring because there is, as my friend Margaret says to me every April, “Hey, there’s a strange male at the bottom of my driveway calling for Phoebe.”
Returning from a-far
Then we have the neotropical migrants. These songbirds make the long haul from Central and South America to return to New England year after year to breed and raise their young. Spring is already well underway when the thrushes and warblers return and they add their songs to the springtime melody, singing in harmony with all the year-round residents.
Meanwhile, it’s March and time to enjoy the songs of our resident songbirds as the males practice their new love tunes for prospective mates. You will hear the gentle “fee-bee” of the chickadee and the “what-cheer what-cheer” of the cardinal. You may even hear the amusing cooing and “conking” companion calling between ravens (yes, corvids are in the songbird order too). So, get into the outside and listen with your ears and your heart to all the birdsongs and get to know your neighbors better.
Arianna Alexsandra Collins, naturalist, poet, writer, wild edible enthusiast, and Wiccan High Priestess lives in Ashfield, MA.
Into the Outside is a bi-monthly feature in the Ashfield News. This article appeared in the March 2021 edition of The Ashfield News.
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