Jeff Green | Mar 20, 2008
Outdoors - March 20, 2008
Back toHomeOutdoors in the LandO'Lakes - March 20, 2008 Harbingers of spring – Blackbirds and Thrushes Outdoors in the Land O'Lakes by Steve Blight
The first waves of mild weather that usually come in March often bring the first major movements of birds from the south. Geese and ducks begin to congregate in flooded fields and ponds, and blackbirds and several of the thrushes begin to arrive to claim the best territories.
The first blackbirds on the scene are the familiar Red-winged Blackbirds, Brown-headed Cowbirds and Common Grackles. The male Red-winged Blackbirds arrive in early March to claim their spots in the local cattail marshes, with the females arriving a week or two later. I regularly see them at their posts on the tops of cattails with the marshes still ice-covered. Males are very competitive in order to claim the most productive territories in the hope of attracting as many females as possible – for it is the females that choose where to nest (and thus their mates), and highly prospective territories can attract more than one female. For males, this is something worth fighting for!
Eastern Meadowlarks are relatives of blackbirds that arrive in mid-March to take up their spots on wires and fence posts, often near hayfields. Males and females are similar in appearance – about the size of blackbirds with a brownish back and clear yellow breast adorned with a black crescent. Interestingly, while Eastern Meadowlarks are virtually indistinguishable in appearance from their close relatives the Western Meadowlarks, their songs are completely different. Like many birds of open country, the population of Eastern Meadowlarks is believed to have declined significantly over the past few decades in our area, mainly due to changing agriculture practices, urban development and the reversion of many former hayfields and pastures to forests.
The first members of the thrush family to arrive in March are the Eastern Bluebird (at left) and American Robin. Both of these birds can survive on berries and fruit left on trees and shrubs from the previous year, along with the odd worm or insect found in warmer patches of ground where the snow has melted. Arriving in our area early is a risky strategy – they get first pick at the best territories for breeding, but success and sometimes survival is at the mercy of the elements – a prolonged cold snap can cause the deaths of many of these birds, especially those in less than ideal physical condition. I once found a dead male Eastern Bluebird in a nesting box after a bout of cold, wet weather in March. While I will never know for sure what happened, the bird may have been seeking shelter in the nesting box during the bad weather, and could not find enough food to survive.
The other common early arriving thrush is the Hermit Thrush, whose beautiful song drifts out from deep within the forest to announce its presence. I usually begin seeing – or more often hearing – this bird about the middle of April. It is a drab, brownish bird, also about the size of a blackbird, with a spotted whitish breast. Another good field mark for the Hermit Thrush can readily seen with binoculars – look for the contrast between its olive back and chestnut tail. While it may not look like much, the hermit thrush’s song is truly magnificent – usually a clear note followed by a jumble of flute-like sounds. Some people describe it as sounding like a pipe organ. For me, this song captures the feeling of the north woods more than any other sound.