There are two red-winged blackbirds and a mourning dove on the bird feeder outside my study window. A black-capped chickadee flies in, snatches a seed and flies away, and a tufted titmouse, a male cardinal and a female, a white-breasted nuthatch and a tree sparrow. Maybe there is more than one chickadee and titmouse, male and female cardinal and tree sparrow. Maybe there are several of each of the shuttle birds taking turns at the feeder.
The red-winged blackbirds and the tree sparrow at my feeder are signs of the season. The tree sparrow is a winter bird, a bird that nests farther north and visits the northern states of the U.S., except Alaska, when the days are short. Soon it will be gone.
The red-winged blackbirds are spring arrivals and will be with us from now through the summer and late into the fall. They are a sign of spring just as the robins I’ve seen recently are, and the bluebirds, cowbirds and grackles. The other birds at my feeder are residents, birds that are with us in every season.
Birds are good indicators of the changing season by their distribution, the presence or absence of different species, by their colors and singing and by their activities. Soon that tree sparrow coming to my feeder, and all other tree sparrows that have been in this area will be gone. So will dark-eyed juncos and red-breasted nuthatches, rough-legged hawks and the snowy owls that have been more numerous this far south this winter than most years.
Spring begins in March and spring is the time when many of the birds of North America that migrate wing their way north. It’s the time when birds are wearing their brightest colors, their breeding plumages. It’s the time when many birds choose the territories where they are going nest and the males are singing to announce their chosen territories and to attract mates. It’s the time when nesting begins for many birds.
Not all birds begin to nest in spring. Great horned owls mate, occupy their nests, lay their eggs and begin to incubate those eggs in mid-winter. American goldfinches go to the opposite extreme, delaying nest building, egg laying and incubation until mid-summer, until thistles begin to loose their plumed seeds on the wind.
March is a special month for bird watching. Sure, there are days in March when it’s cold, when there’s a strong wind that feels like it’s blowing off the Arctic ice driving the wind-chill much lower than the temperature indicated by a thermometer. There are days of snow and of freezing rain. But there are also days when the sun shines, snow and ice melt, and there are birds to be seen that you haven’t seen since last summer or fall.
The earliest feathered spring arrivals come in February, some even in January. There will be more in April than in March, still more in May. But March is a special month for birding. Many of the birds seen will be firsts for the year. Probably not the first robin or bluebird or red-winged blackbird, they usually come earlier, but the first meadowlark, the first song sparrow, the first white-throated sparrow and chipping sparrow and field sparrow. The first warbler, a yellow-rumped most likely. The first killdeer. The first flock of ducks though places where rivers run swift and have not been covered with ice may have had ducks and Canada geese all winter.
In March not only are there first bird sightings for the year, many of those sightings will be in the clear. Leaves of maple and oak, cottonwood and willow and other trees and bushes will not have opened and be obstructing the view of the birds. And nearly every bird seen in March is a promise of spring.