Many of our holidays seem tightly tied to season. Whether their origins are based on the cycles of the natural world, or religion, or history, they at least seem to “fit in” with the time of year. I write this article on Valentine’s Day. A day that seems to be more tied to commercialism than any natural event or cycle. It seems odd for a holiday about affection and love to be celebrated in the dead of winter. But as I was reminded by a friend earlier in the week, it may be quite fitting. Even on what may be one of the coldest and snowiest day this winter, love is in the air.
It seems too cold and too early to be thinking about territories, courtships, nests, dens, and baby animals. Generally, these are spring thoughts. But for many animals, winter is the time for these things. It is with sticks, songs, color, and scent rather than chocolate and flowers that animals show their suitability and their interest.
On these blustery winter days, some birds are in the first stages of breeding, which is setting up territory. I’ve heard reports of Northern Cardinals and Black-capped Chickadees starting to sing. Both birds are beginning to separate from the mixed winter flocks and pair off. The clear, two-note “fee-bee” song of the chickadee and the cardinal’s “whoit whoit” are early harbingers of spring.
At the bird feeder, I witness males and female cardinals feeding peacefully together, a step in the transition from winter survival to courtship. There were even two cardinals, one male the other female, sitting on the same branch. They were still a long way off from courtship feeding that happens later in spring, but it was a sign things are slowly changing.
A flip through the Stokes Nature Guide: A Guide to Bird Behavior shows that many birds including Mallards, woodpeckers, Tufted Titmice, and Red-tailed Hawks begin showing their interest in mates in late winter. In fact, on the drive to work, I saw two Red-tailed Hawks perched in the same tree. Usually solitary birds, this proximity indicated they are a pair.
Some birds have already moved into courtship and mating in February. In this region, Bald Eagles return to their nest sites as early as January and February. It was reported that there was an eagle sitting on the edge of a nest the week before. Not sitting on eggs, but perhaps checking out the nest to see if it is acceptable. Perhaps waiting for its mate to return with the gift of a stick to build this year’s addition.
Even if eagles return to a nest used in a previous year, they still add sticks and line the inside with softer material from various plants and down feathers. This is a practical job, as a nest may sustain some damage throughout winter. But building together is also a courtship ritual that strengths the bond of the eagle pair.
Owls are another early nester. In mid-November, I received a text from my brother-in-law asking “What bird is this?” Attached to the message was a recording of a Great Horned Owl. Apparently, a pair was calling back and forth in their suburban neighborhood for several nights. Great Horned Owl pairs will defend their territory throughout winter, then nest in late winter. I wonder if now, among the tall pines and hardwoods of their neighborhood, there is a Great Horned Owl, her down feathers and body heat keeping eggs warm.
Other mammals take this late winter time to find a mate. Red and Gray Squirrels, Coyotes, rabbits, Muskrats, Red Foxes, Minks, River Otters, and Bobcats start breeding now through early spring. Woodchucks, Raccoons, and Striped Skunks wake up from their winter sleep and move from den to den smelling out mates. Their footprints may be seen in the light dusting of late winter snow. For many, their young are then ready to emerge from the den or nest when food is abundant.
On a walk out past Big Pond, the beaver lodge in the pond all looks still and quiet. The lodge is well maintained and the stock of sticks stuck in the mud as food for the winter is still fairly large. Tracks across the snow indicate the beavers have been out overnight, seeking out food or materials for their constructions. And the female beaver could be doing this pregnant. Beavers mate January through March. By mid-summer, the kits could be out swimming, having stayed in the protection of the lodge until then.
I think of Black Bears, perhaps still in their winter dens, mothers curled around their newborn young. Black Bears mate in the spring, but give birth mid-winter, waking up from hibernation to do so. In this most unforgiving season the mother’s body protects, warms, and feeds her cubs until spring. What a tough mammal.
A look at the calendar will tell us that we are on the backside of winter. February 2 marked the halfway point between the Winter Solstice (December 22) and the Spring Equinox (March 19). Just because the calendar says “Spring” doesn’t mean the weather obeys. We could still not see warm, spring-like weather for weeks and weeks.
But alas, the animals don’t care. They are going about their business of survival. And for many, this time of year means creating the next generation. How fitting, then, that we celebrate Valentine’s Day in February. These natural happenings that continue about the cycle of life indicate that spring is not too far away.
Katie Finch is a nature educator at Audubon.
Audubon Community Nature Center builds and nurtures connections between people and nature. ACNC is located just east of Route 62 between Warren and Jamestown. The trails are open from dawn to dusk as is Liberty, the Bald Eagle. The Nature Center is open from 10 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. daily except Sunday when it opens at 1 p.m. More information can be found online at auduboncnc.org or by calling (716) 569-2345.