Feb 19, 2020 | Featured in: Watching Backyard Birds, February 2019

Early Birds

Northern cardinals seem to maintain pair bonds throughout the year, which facilitates early nesting. They can set about the business of mating, nest building, and egg laying without having to go through the time-consuming business of attracting and defending a mate.
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Across much of the United States, a cohort of birds always seems to rush the season; they can be heard singing even as February snow flies. For those of us who fall asleep with seed catalogs draped across our flannel-clad chests, these songsters are immensely cheering. Yet many of us are unaware of why certain birds seem to start singing—and nesting—so early in the season.

The northern cardinal leads the pack of early singers, closely followed by the tufted titmouse and red-bellied woodpecker.

Not coincidentally, these three species have all expanded their ranges north from a stronghold in the deep South. In a sense, their internal clocks are still set to Georgia time!

It certainly helps that the tufted titmouse and red-bellied woodpecker are cavity nesters; it’s much easier to keep eggs and young warm in an insulated cavity than in an open-cup nest. Cardinals start singing early but they must wait until the weather warms to build their drafty little twig nests.

Another species that sings and breeds early is the mourning dove. Actually, mourning doves have been observed nesting and laying eggs in every month of the year. I once watched a female gathering straw to line her twig nest in a January snow storm in Connecticut! You’re likely to find the pipped white eggshells of mourning doves in March and April, before many birds have even started to sing. It’s a trait of the pigeon family to nest opportunistically and often.

Both the cardinal and the mourning dove seem to maintain pair bonds throughout the year, which facilitates early nesting. They can set about the business of mating, nest building, and egg laying without having to go through the time-consuming business of attracting and defending a mate. Although cardinals seem to switch mates with some frequency, mourning doves tracked in an eight-year banding study appeared to mate for life.



About Julie Zickefoose

Julie is a naturalist, author, artist, and photographer. She lives in Whipple, Ohio. Follow her blog at juliezickefoose.blogspot.com.

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  • Love listeningto both songs and calls from birds in our woody neighborhood. The two types of birds I immediately recognize are the cardinals and the chickadees. Yesterday afternoon too, I heard a woodpecker. Then it’s time to check the birdfeeders and the birdbath. Then In no time at all the cardinals and chickadees arrive, as if they had been watching me. As it gets busier around the feeders, I also hear thé screeching of the blue jays. I even saw a couple of robins checking out our lawn....spring has arrived as the last pat gesofisticeerde snow and ice melt away.
    by louisabt, Sun, 08 Mar 2020
  • I am wondering about existing nests for Phoebes. I have two outdoor aisle entries to my barn and there are old Phoebe nests up. They ignore them each year and build new nests adjacent to the old, but space is running out. Should I knock down the old nests so they can rebuild?
    by [email protected], Sun, 02 Feb 2020
  • Just wondering, should we put anything in the bottom of the box...twigs, clippings, leaves....anything at all?
    by Hebb, Tue, 28 Jan 2020
  • New to birding...newbie question. We spotted what we thought was a Sapsucker at our patio feeders in December. The folks at our birding supply store told us that Sapsuckers are only here in Summer months and what we saw was a Flicker. I thought I new what a Flicker was and this did not look like a Flicker. It was thinner and more smooth looking but did have the Woodpecker Bill.
    by Edmund Steinman, Wed, 08 Jan 2020
  • We just signed up and get your magazine via email. Will we be receiving a printed copy?Ed [email protected]
    by Edmund Steinman, Wed, 08 Jan 2020