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Listening to the birds for early signs of spring

I seek signs of spring, no matter how small, throughout the year. In the bird world it starts in a distant grove of trees in the long nights of December. The great horned owl gives notice to any wandering juvenile owl that it’s time to clear out and find its own patch of woods. On a few nights you can hear the female join in a duet. It isn’t all about bluster and defending the home turf. It’s not much, but it’s the beginning.

On a rare warm and sunny day in December, you might find one of our resident pairs of red-tailed hawks sitting together on a utility pole or even fussing with the furniture in the nest. But this isn’t really a sign of spring. It’s more of a wish.

The same warm days may coax an abbreviated song from a varied thrush or a junco or even a golden-crowned sparrow. But the moment it turns cold again, all is silent as each goes about the business of scratching out a living in the lean months of winter.

By mid-January, however, you can hear the first sure signs of spring. It’s not sustained, but the lead in to the spring chorus is there to be savored. On many mornings, you can hear the oak titmice and white-breasted nuthatches announce ownership of a territory.

The Rogue Valley lies at the very northern extent of the range of the titmouse. It has several songs, where its close relative, the chickadee, has a single song and one call, the familiar “chick-a-dee-dee.” Each song of the titmouse consists of a single syllable, often rich and complex, repeated five to 10 times. It delivers its song a few times before pausing for a response from its neighbor. After a while, it switches songs and delivers another short solo.

On into February the energy and duration of the singing increases, but it is never forceful and sustained. There is no need to impress a female. They remain paired year round. The need is only to remind the neighbors to stay clear. Usually by late March they fall silent, turning to the serious business of rearing a brood.

The other early vocalist is the white-breasted nuthatch. The song is a repeated series of rising notes. A song or two here and there is all you will hear. They, like the titmouse, remain paired year round and find little need to impress.

Both start nesting early like many of our cavity nesters. Being cavity nesters, they have the luxury of a relatively safe place to rear a family. Cavity nesters have a relatively long incubation period, and the young spend longer in the nest before fledging. And for good measure, cavity nesters usually add an additional egg or two to the clutch compared to species with open cup nests. Predation on open cup nests like those of sparrows and robins is very high. There is not a moment to waste.

March will bring a richer chorus of song, and the real show begins in late April. But I can never get enough spring. For now, I will savor the few songs on a chilly morning in the oak woodland.

— Stewart Janes is a biology professor at Southern Oregon University. He can be reached at janes@sou.edu.

The Rogue Valley lies at the very northern extent of the range of the oak titmouse. Photo by Mark Heatherington