Feb 14, 2018 | Featured in: Watching Backyard Birds, February 2018

Subtle Signs of Spring

The first hints that change is coming are easy to miss if you aren't looking closely. Often, the first indication that birds are answering the call of another breeding season is often nothing more than fewer visits to the feeder.

'Spring is sprung, the grass is riz, I wonder where the birdies is.'

That variation is one of several that my friends and I giggled over when we were tots. It is far too many years ago for me to remember why we found this silly little couplet so appealing, unless it was the tortured effort to rhyme "risen" with "is," but it comes back into my memory at least once every spring. Maybe as we grow older the simple pleasures of our childhood appeal more and more to us, but it still evokes a smile when I think of it.

Bird watchers who pay close attention to their feeders recognize the changing of the seasons by more than the need to flip a page on the calendar every 30 days or so. Birds have their own inexorable seasonal rhythms, and for many of us it takes no more than a glance at the crowd that has gathered on or under our bird feeders on any morning to recognize that change is under-way. Everyone recognizes the big movements, the days in fall when the first flocks of juncos show up, or the day in spring when the yard is full of warblers, but the patterns at the feeder are subtle, and will reveal clues well in advance of the obvious.

If you regularly watch your feeder throughout the winter, you will become almost unconsciously familiar with the patterns of daily occurrence and abundance, and more attuned to subtle changes that herald the change of seasons. By early to midwinter at most feeders the standard gang is fully established. The number of chickadees or sparrows rarely changes much from day to day, although bad weather will often cause a positive stampede at the feeding station, and an opportunity to find less frequent visitors. Some birds, such as the winter finches, tend to wander irregularly and can show up at any time, and disappear just as quickly. The core flock, however, rarely changes much.

The first hints that change is coming are easy to miss if you aren’t looking closely. They involve two groups of birds: the early nesting residents, such as woodpeckers, and the earliest migrants, often the sparrows. In the case of the residents, the first indication that they are answering the call of another breeding season is often nothing more than fewer visits to the feeder. Courtship, territory establishment, and searching out nest sites begin to occupy more and more of their time, and even when they do drop in for a snack, the visit is often shorter and more frenzied than before: They have other things to do.

Another early sign that the resident birds give is that the winter flocks begin to break up. The flock of a dozen chickadees is now more likely to be three or four smaller groups, and the birds do not seem as tolerant and social as they were in the depths of winter. This phenomenon can be seen if you have blackbirds visiting your feeders. Blackbird flocks usually start breaking up by midwinter as males go forth to set up territories, and the mob at the feeder will not only be substantially reduced, but often consist almost entirely of females, which tend to wait until the males have set up house before joining them.

Even the migrants can provide clues, although we have to look closely to see them. It is easy enough to tell when the flock of 50 sparrows or finches suddenly becomes a dozen, usually after a warm night with light southerly winds and a clear sky. Many of the sparrows are on the move well before that point, however. The males tend to leave before the females, and some birds just like to get an early jump on the season.

Migration for most species is a protracted process. Although it may not be obvious to the casual observer, the flock of a dozen juncos at the feeder on a late winter Wednesday may not be made up of the same individuals as it was on Sunday. With species in which the males and females look alike the shifting pattern is not easy to see. Look for subtle variations in the number of birds visiting the feeder. If your daily counts for the week run something like 20, 16, 14, 22, 18, 9, 25, the chances are good that you are seeing migration. Most winter flocks are fairly stable, and irregular changes in abundance mean that some birds have left and others have stopped in.

Look also for the unexpected bird. At my feeder in the Mid-Atlantic states, the first sign of spring was often the appearance of a fox sparrow. The first time that happened was late February, hardly spring in most people's minds, and my reaction was that the bird must have wintered in the area and had just found its way to my feeder. It was only later that I learned that fox sparrows start moving at a time when few other birds are thinking about spring, and within a week I usually had a small gang of fox sparrows sprucing up my yard, as quickly gone as they had arrived. Fox sparrows on the move tend not to dawdle.

Even the appearance of a bird as common and widespread as a song sparrow may be the first evidence of birds on the move. In many parts of the country, song sparrows are not habitual feeder visitors, even where they are resident. In my yard it was a rare day when one stopped to join the white-throateds and juncos, and except on stormy days, it usually meant the bird was a migrant, a brief visitor.

Nature is not a calendar watcher and birds do not need to check the date to know when spring is in the air. If we watch them closely, neither do we.

About Eirik A.T. Blom

Eirik Blom was a contributing editor for Bird Watcher's Digest from 1998 to 2002.

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