February’s Dawn Chorus
The Northern Cardinal did it. He reminded me of a promise to myself I don’t often keep: slow down in every way. As I rushed from my front door to the truck, he sang from the top of a sugar maple. I stopped, turned … and melted.
Even on those cold, crystalline winter mornings, the lengthening days launch songbirds into vernal (and carnal) serenades. It’s all about the sunlight. Birds have light receptors in their brain tissue that trigger hormones which shift their reproductive systems into gear. They don’t necessarily need to see that the days are longer. Their skulls, somewhat translucent, allow sunlight to penetrate. The result is music. And nothing says “I want you” like bird song.
Oh, sure, this may seem to be a kind of sunny disposition on the part of the male. But it’s actually about ruthless opportunism. He sings to broadcast his presence to females but also to delineate and defend a territory. Females aren’t only interested in the vitality of his song or the glow of his plumage. When time comes for the female to choose a mate, she’ll also be looking for a territory large enough for finding food to feed her young. A male singing in February is like a gold miner wasting no time to stake the best claim. So, yes, at least in songbirds, size does matter.
Here’s what I heard along with that Cardinal in my village, Plainfield, Vermont, this morning:
- Hairy Woodpecker – keek!
- Downy Woodpecker – drumming
- Black-capped Chickadee — FEEE-bee
- White-breasted Nuthatch (pictured) — yank-yank-yank-yank-yank
- European Starling – calling a harsh fee-beeh! like an Eastern Phoebe
- European Starling – warbling like an Eastern Bluebird
- European Starling – issuing a raspy call note like a Northern Mockingbird’s
- European Starling – whistling like an Eastern Meadowlark
- European Starling – vocalizing like a European Starling
- American Goldfinch – singing like a canary
- Purple Finch – zig-zagging in perky song and issuing its classic pik notes
We’ve got lots of winter ahead. (At least I hope so.) But I’ll take this melodious dose of spring any day.