Well, I don’t know if we can call it “love”. Maybe a more scientific term is called for. How about “potential mate selection”? No, it just doesn’t quite have that Valentine’s Day ring to it. However we say it though, mate selection has begun in the wild woodlands of the Adirondacks.
One day last week, as I skied through the wonderful trails of the Paul Smiths Visitor Interpretive Center.
I stopped to watch the acrobatic high-jinks of some black-capped chickadees. Off in the distance came a loud, monotone drumming on a tree down the hill. As I heard it I knew that spring was not too far away.
What I heard was the drumming “call notes” of a male hairy woodpecker calling for a mate. He will rapidly drum with his bill on a branch, preferably hollow since he wants that sound to carry a great distance through the winter woods. By the way, he’ll also drum on your metal gutters, down spout, or nearby telephone pole! Hard to imagine a bird going through such self abuse while winter still holds firm in the North Country.
But as they say, the early bird catches the worm; in this case he attracts a female, courts her, and then sometime around March or early April they begin nesting, and about 30 days later they’ll have a growing family in that hollowed-out nest hole.
I’ll bet you have observed this courting of hairy and downy woodpeckers on your walks though the late winter woods. You’ll first hear the loud “chink” call notes of the male and then you’ll see the two birds chase one another around the trunk of the tree. Often she’ll fly away, but hot on her tail is the male. He’s not letting this one go. So chances are if you see two woodpeckers playing a game of tag this month or next, it’s a courting pair.
Are other birds gearing up for the mating season now? You bet your sweet-smelling-red-roses they are! Peregrine falcons will soon be returning to the Adirondacks from their wintering grounds along the coastal US, Mexico, or Central America, in search of a good cliff-dwelling-casa. We often get falcons back on North Country nesting territories in late February or early March.
Hear any owls hooting in the woods? That’s most likely a male defending his chosen territory and also trying to attract a female. Being year-round residents, barred, great horned, and saw-whet owls will begin nesting in early March. I recall seeing a great horned owl on a nest with almost a foot of snow balanced along the rim of the nest on St Patrick’s Day. And in mid April I’ve observed large great horned owl chicks sitting on a nest.
Bald Eagles will soon be courting, and what a treat that is to watch. Look for two adult bald eagles flying high above in unison, like two joined figure skaters in the air. If you’re really lucky you’ll get to see them performing a talon-locking maneuver that defies death. They will begin cleaning out the nest and re-attaching branches to spruce the place up. It’s not unusual for a pair to be sitting on eggs in a raging, late winter snowstorm.
Just like the eagles, falcons, and owls, a male red-tailed hawk will begin his pre- spring courting in the skies above our neighborhoods. Listen for the high-pitched screech he gives in flight as he searches for a mate.
In February and March there’s a whole text book list of things that are going on in the bird world, and I’ll soon be writing about them. Hormones are coursing through bodies; ovaries are growing; testes are enlarging (oops, sorry, thought this was the adult version-too graphic?). Anyways, all this is happening in our winter visiting birds and also in the birds that will soon be winging their way northward from tropical climates to find love in our Adirondack woods.
Photo: Male hairy woodpecker by Louis Agassiz Fuertes.