The spring chorus begins

As I gaze out the window at the recent addition of 8 inches of snow, it hardly seems like spring, though the vernal equinox is just two weeks away. But one step outside is an immediate reminder that things are changing. Even on very cold mornings, the sun is now so high in the sky (see the Feb 2013 Phenology article) that if feels quite warm. And close inspection of some tree buds, such as aspen, reveals some swelling. Most notable to me, however, is the exuberant birdsong bursting forth from the trees. Northern cardinals, black-capped chickadees, white-breasted nuthatches, bluejays and other year-round residents are feeling the seasonal change and belting out their mating calls. Red-bellied, hairy, and downy woodpeckers are all drumming out their mating patterns.

But what hits me more than anything is the chorus of song from the finches. In my particular location it’s American goldfinch, pine siskins and common redpolls, with occasional purple finches. A large mixed flock hangs out by our feeders and regales us with their spring songs. While all but the goldfinch will be heading north to breed (primarily to Canada), they are “warming up” their breeding-season songs now.

Several of the finch species have similar-sounding songs, but one can pick out the pine siskins (/Spinus pinus/), by their nasal sounding phrases, punctuated by an ascending “tziiiiiiiip!” These little birds have a modest appearance – somewhat plain, brown streaked, with inconspicuous yellow edges on the wing and tail – but they are quite a marvel of nature. Pine Siskins primarily nest in Canada, coming to our relatively warmer region to spend the winter. They are, however, well adapted to very cold temperatures with a metabolic rates 40% higher than other songbird of their size, and they can increase that rate up to five times to survive temperatures as low as –70°C (–94°F). They also put on 50% more winter fat than the common redpoll (/Acanthis//flammea)/and American goldfinch (/Spinus tristis/) (Source: The Cornell Lab of Ornithology).

The darling of the finches mentioned here, however, is the common redpoll, with their black chin, little red caps and, and red blush on the front (males). We’ll miss all these little friends who have braved the winter with us!

If you want to get an idea of what birds to expect next, check out this blog post from Tennessee.