October 26, 2014

’Tis the season of birdland wooing

Mark Pritchard enjoyed last week’s column on the Pileated Woodpecker, and sends along a shot from his own West Redding yard where the bird was working on a rotten log — a fine illustration of why the Pileated is also known as a “logcock.”

Mark Pritchard enjoyed last week’s column on the Pileated Woodpecker, and sends along a shot from his own West Redding yard where the bird was working on a rotten log — a fine illustration of why the Pileated is also known as a “logcock.”Mark Pritchard enjoyed last week’s column on the Pileated Woodpecker, and sends along a shot from his own West Redding yard where the bird was working on a rotten log — a fine illustration of why the Pileated is also known as a “logcock.”Spring is more than in the air — it is here. The calendar may not agree, but just about everything else does — Snowdrops in mid-February, crocuses in late February, and we saw daffodils blooming in Central Park Sunday and pansies on Park Avenue.

The birds agree, too, and most have been singing “spring” songs for weeks. The cardinals have been cheer-cheering, the titmice petering, and the Red-winged Blackbirds are filling the swamps with their tur-a-leeing — all songs designed to set up territories and attract mates.

The magic that makes two birds get together as mates is nearly as mysterious as the magic that makes two humans fall in love. However, in the case of birds, the attraction is instinctive and lacks the romance of a human relationship.

It’s impossible to know just what spark sets off a connection between two birds, but scientists have found several factors that seem to improve a bird’s chances of getting a mate.

Males typically court females. Unlike humans who tend to concentrate on a single candidate, birds may attempt to woo many females over a short period until one says “yes.”

In courting a mate, the male may employ a variety of techniques, some overt and others subtle. Song is the most noticeable — and, to us, enjoyable — tool in attracting a female, and some species belt out incredible music in the spring. Studies have shown that females may actually evaluate the song for quality or loudness.

Instead of singing, many woodpeckers use drumming — rat-a-tat-tatting on a hollow limb or tree trunk. They may also drum on gutters and clapboards, much to the chagrin of homeowners.

Females may also evaluate the color of the male’s feathers. Strength of voice and quality of feathers may be signs of good health in the bird, and the female is instinctively seeking a strong male that will produce healthy offspring.

In order to attract a mate, males of many species perform rituals, such as dancing on the ground, wiggling, puffing up or spreading feathers, or flying in certain patterns. Again, the male that does well may be showing off his quality of health as much as his performance skills.

Some birds may offer gifts. Common Terns woo by offering fish to a mate. Male cardinals often feed females. Other species hold nesting materials in their beaks.

Yet another technique — one sometimes engaged in by humans — is brute force. A male may spot a likely mate and simply chase off all the competition. Males of many species establish territories even before they have mates, and encourage females to enter and inspect the homestead. Several species of wrens even build sample or dummy nests to attract mates to their territories.

In a few cases, the female is the leader in wooing. Among the phalaropes, a group of sea birds, the female not only takes the lead in seeking a mate, she is much more brightly colored than the male — a reversal of the usual arrangement. What’s more, it is the male that later incubates the eggs and raises the chicks!

Coming up

Family Bird Watch, review winter birds, bird feeding and first returning migrants Saturday, March 10, 1 to 2 p.m., Audubon Greenwich, 613 Riversville Road, RSVP to Ted at 203-869-5272 x230.

Family Nestbox Workshop, hosting bird families in your yard, kits can be ordered, Saturday, March 17, 2 to 3:30 p.m., Audubon Greenwich, 613 Riversville Road, Ted at 203-869-5272 x230.

Excursion to Wallkill NWR and Shawangunk Grasslands Preserve, winter raptors and more with Bedford Audubon Naturalist Tait Johansson, Saturday, March 17, 9 to 2:30, free, depart Bylane Farm, 35 Todd Road, Katonah at 7:30 a.m., return to Bylane around 4, jpollock@bedfordaudubon.org or 914-519-7801, www.bedfordaudubon.org.

Woodcock Watch, one of the rites of spring, Saturday, March 17, 6:45 to 7:45 p.m., $5, RSVP to Jeff at 203-869-5272 x239.

Annual Meeting, Connecticut Ornithological Association, with sessions on gull identification and watching, interesting lives of local species, innovative approaches to birding, more, Saturday, March 24, all day, $20/$25, open to public, but registration required, Chapman Hall, Middlesex Community College, Middletown, ctbirding.org.

Seals and Seabirds cruises, two and a half hours around Norwalk Islands, Saturdays, March 17 at 1:30 pm, March 31 at noon and Sunday, April 1, at 1 p.m., $20.50, Maritime Aquarium, Norwalk, 203-852-0700, ext. 2206, maritimeaquarium.org

Eagle Viewing Trips, on Connecticut River, through March 18, 9, 11:30 and 2 on weekends, and 10 and 1 on Thursdays, $40, Connecticut Audubon, 1-800-996-8747.

Copyright 2012 by Jack Sanders. Send sightings or comments to: jackfsanders [at sign] gmail.com, or to Bird Notes, Box 1019, Ridgefield, CT 06877. If you need help identifying a bird, try your local nature center. If you find an injured bird, call wildlife rehabilitator Darlene Wimbrow of Redding, 203-438-0618, Wildlife in Crisis of Weston, 203-544-9913, or Wild Wings of Greenwich, 203-637-9822. The columnist’s website is www. sandersbooks. com.