They’re baaaack! And it lifts my spirits to see them once again. The sun’s warmth has finally beaten back winter’s icy hold. The mourning doves and house sparrows that frequented my feeder were like houseguests that had over-stayed their welcome. I was hoping for some fresh faces. In mid-March, the early returning birds started trickling in and the arrival of each new species felt like a reunion with an old friend.
First back on the scene were the common grackles. Sure, they’re big and aggressive, and tend to amass in squawky gangs, but I see them as very vocal messengers of spring. Their iridescent purplish feathers, bright yellow eyes, and large tails easily identify these members of the blackbird family. They’ve been spending winter just south of our region where their food supply of invertebrates and seeds was more available.
Shortly after, I saw an American robin. For many, this red-breasted thrush is their first sign of spring, but a portion of the population stays here all year round. They move from lawns and open areas into sheltered river corridors, orchards, and groves. Their diet in winter consists of the berries that persist on buckthorn, mountain ash, sumac, etc. in contrast to their summer diet of worms, insects, spiders, and tender fruit.
One afternoon, I spotted an ominous shape floating high up in the sky. From the enormous wingspan, uniform dark colouring and soaring flight pattern, I knew it was a turkey vulture. This is a bird that is equal parts absolutely hideous and incredibly fascinating. Usually a bird migrates if its food source is no longer available or becomes inaccessible in a certain location. So, why do turkey vultures migrate? They’re scavengers, dining on carrion, such as roadkill. Their foodstuff is available in winter, just as it is in summer. The key factor is how turkey vultures find their food. Most birds rely heavily on keen eyesight or sharp hearing. Turkey vultures are rare in that they hunt with their noses. The smell of decaying meat lets these birds know that their supper is ready. In the winter, only frozen dinners are being offered and they lack that enticing aroma.
Still to come are those birds that catch their meals on the wing, such as flycatchers and swallows. These, along with warblers, will time their return to coincide with the emergence of insects from their winter rest. In general, arrival dates in our region are a reflection of the birds’ winter whereabouts. The earliest arrivals are those species that only migrated a short distance, perhaps into the mid-eastern states where the weather was milder. Later arrivals tend to be the neo-tropical migrants, which over-winter in Central and South America.
When the birds finally do make it back, they are done up in their most brilliant breeding plumage, ready to sing out their songs of love to one another, perform their courting rituals, defend their territory, and start their nest building. Another year’s cycle is set in motion.