robins in our yard

The first arrivals – American Robins Photo by Mike Link

I really don’t know what to expect with the drastic swings of warm and cold weather we have had this month. Two Sundays ago it was 59F and raining – four days later temperatures fell below zero overnight.  Our minimal snow covering vanished in the Sunday thunderstorm and even though we’ve had one or two dustings since then, the sun is strong enough to melt it all away, except in the most shaded spots.

Without any snow on the ground people are developing strong cases of spring fever and anxiously awaiting the arrival of the first spring birds.  Based on the records we have kept at our house over the past 30 years, we normally expect to see the first American Robins and Red-wing Blackbirds in the last week of March or first week of April.  These dates fluctuate from year to year, but the overall trend has favored earlier arrivals.

It is a suspenseful time for birdwatchers or anyone interested in nature.  Even though we didn’t live through a difficult winter this year, we are still anxious to see the southern migrants return to our yards and fields, filling the air with more songs and sounds than we’ve heard for the past five and a half months.  While we’re anticipating this great event, we must not forget our loyal wintering birds. They manage to keep our eyes and ears entertained in the intervening months.

A Black-capped Chickadee fledgling being fed by a parent. Photo by Laura Erickson

Just this afternoon, Mike and I were working in our forest, thinning some of the red and jack pines that were growing too close together.  The only birds that made themselves known were the Black-capped Chickadees, those ever cheerful little bits of black, grey and white fluff.  They chittered at us, possibly scolding, as we invaded their territory.  I watched them hop from branch to branch pecking at invisible (to us) bits of insect larvae.  In the distance another chickadee sang its spring courtship song, ‘feebee, feebee’.

a nest full of chickadees

A cavity nest full of hungry chickadee youngsters.

The female chooses her mate and pairs may remain bonded for years. They begin scouting out potential nest sites in late January and February, looking for cavities in old and rotting trees.  They will use former woodpecker nest holes or nest boxes of the right size too. Our forest has an abundance of dead and dying trees of all varieties.  Most fall down in storms, and we are careful when cutting to leave any that look as though they might be nest trees.

Both adults work on excavating the nest site, which can take a week or more. The female makes the actual nest using coarse material like bark, moss, and pine needles for a base.  Animal hair, fur, or cattail down will fill the cup that will hold the eggs.  If you have a dog that is shedding, brush them outside or collect the hair from the brush and put it in an empty suet feeder and give the chickadees a ‘quick stop’ service.

Black-capped Chickadee fledgling

A Black-capped Chickadee adult feeds a fledgling. Photo by Laura Erickson

Eggs are normally laid sometime in mid-April, but again this may be a year to break all kinds of patterns.  Six to eight eggs are laid and incubation begins just before the last egg is laid, so that all the babies will hatch within 24 hours of one another – usually two weeks from the start of incubation.  The male will feed the female once the eggs start hatching, so she can stay put and keep them warm, but as soon as those hungry babies become more demanding both parents are kept busy flying back and forth to the nest with highly nutritious insects.

Once the young fledge they follow their parents around for another three to four weeks and this is when you might see two chickadees on the same branch, one of them fluttering its wings and making pitiful begging sounds.  This is also a time when your sunflower hearts and chips may begin to disappear more quickly from the feeders.

Like children jubilant over new toys, those of who enjoy birdwatching will find our attention on all the bright and shiny new ones at the bird feeders  and in the trees. The lovely little chickadees will still be around carrying on as usual, though we will have a hard time seeing them through the glaze over our eyes.

By Kate Crowley