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The Dawn Chorus

Light and Song for the New Year

January 3, 2019  |  by Bryan Pfeiffer  |  12 comments  | 

If you rushed around before work this morning, cleaning snow from the car, shoveling your path, dashing for coffee, contemplating the inbox, then you probably missed it — that faint echo of springtime.

No, I’m sorry, spring is not “around the corner.” So do not be misled. Here in New England, we’ve got, oh, about four months until the warblers arrive. But those echos will no doubt sound again on Friday and Saturday, when the morning light inspires birds to sing out.

American Goldfinch

A Tufted Titmouse got it started for me this morning here in Montpelier. I paused and leaned on the snow shovel for his sweet “pee-ter, pee-ter, pee-ter.” Then came a couple of Black-capped Chickadees, singing a drawn “fee-bee.” The symphony picked up when a flock of American Goldfinches and Pine Siskins added chatter and sweetness, more like an orchestra tuning up. Even the American Crows, flying by overhead, sounded like spring.

As it turns out, many of these birds are indeed tuning up for mating season. Not because they’re ready to mate. Far from it. Birds schedule mating and nesting to take advantage of a reliable abundance of food for their offspring, mostly insects, which happens in May and June here at our latitude.

But as the days grow longer, birds do start to “think” about making more birds. Day length is a far more reliable calendar and reminder for them than the weather and its vagaries. It is not entirely clear how birds measure day length, but we do know that photo-receptors in bird brains sense increasing light. It triggers the production of hormones that act like birdie Viagra. Their sexual organs begin to revive from a state of dormancy. As a result, when the food is there in May, songbirds will be ready … you know, physically.

Pine Siskin

The snow and light this morning were enough to evoke song. You should hear it again in the morning sunshine over the next couple days. And it will only get more musical in early February up here, when we start to see 10 hours of daylight. Yeah, 10 hours is arbitrary, but does coincide with Groundhog Day (when we start to think spring).

So here’s my bird list from various meanderings around Montpelier today, most of them vocalizing in some way. See what you might overhear during a few minutes in the morning light on Friday or Saturday. Post your sightings in the comments section below. Thanks!

  • Mallard
  • Pileated Woodpecker
  • Downy Woodpecker
  • Hairy Woodpecker
  • Rock Pigeon
  • American Crow
  • Common Raven
  • Black-capped Chickadee
  • Tufted Titmouse
  • White-breasted Nuthatch
  • Eastern Bluebird
  • Northern Cardinal
  • Pine Grosbeak
  • House Finch
  • Pine Siskin
  • American Goldfinch
  1. Carol Muth says:

    A Mallard was practicing his head bobbing routine in the presence of a female this afternoon on Frenchman’s Bay at Hulls Cove.
    Happy New Year!

  2. Diana Fielder says:

    We are seeing and enjoying the feeding of the Bohemian Waxwings on the buckthorn berries in our area. Mal and Diana Fielder

  3. Joanna C says:

    I heard two barred owls calling to one another during a late afternoon run at Shelburne Farms recently. They are mating or getting ready to, correct? Thanks for saying you are not in a hurry for spring. I love winter as much as the other seasonal!

    • Thanks for the report, Joanna. Yep, they get started early — but usually not until February or Mach. Great Horned Owls, on the other hand, will incubate eggs even in winter. They start about now. Takes some time to raise a brood of owls.

  4. Catherine C says:

    A rather loud and aggressive tufted titmouse visited my feeder recently, blasting its song every time a poor unwitting chickadee or nuthatch tried to feed. It was certainly no mating tune, but was definitely intended to shoo away the other birds, and it worked! Was fun to watch and hear. Thanks for your post this morning, Bryan!

  5. Sally Colman says:

    Thanks Brian. It is nice to know that they are all out there. I was greeted loudly by a jay on this beautiful morning:)
    Happy New Year!

  6. Sandra Bissex says:

    Happy, Healthy 2019 to you and yours-including the Bird Kingdom.

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