Step out into your backyard one warm sunny day this month and listen to the noise. Dozens of birds are singing their most beautiful songs to attract a mate, often all at the same time. Spring has begun and the birds know it.
If you are fortunate enough to have Evening Grosbeaks visiting your backyard, take careful note of the colour of their beaks in March. During the winter, the beak is a neutral bone colour, but in spring it turns a beautiful lime green to coincide with the colour of emerging deciduous buds and spruce needles. This colouration helps to conceal the birds in their nests. In order to see out, the bird needs only to lift its head and bill, which will look like a young green spruce or balsam cone to predators and humans.
Starlings also undergo a colour change in the spring. Their beaks fade from black to light yellow, and their plumage loses some of the white dandruff-type spots to become an iridescent green and blue on their heads and backs.
The American Goldfinch loses its drab olive brown feathers. The male takes on the brilliant canary yellow that contrasts so strongly with its black cap, wings and tail. The female wears a summer ensemble of olive yellow and black, with brighter yellow on her neck and breast.
From singing, to change in plumage, to aerial dance, birds use many methods to attract a mate each spring. Courtship feeding is an important part of many mating practices. A female will assume the begging posture of a juvenile bird while the male brings food to her. This is practised by Bluejays, Red-breasted Nuthatches and Chickadees, to name a few. Scientists believe it is part of a beneficial bonding that will provide food for the female while she is incubating the eggs and later help when both parents feed the young.
It's a thrill to discover birds nesting in your yard and there are some easy clues to help you find them. If you see a pair of birds regularly in your yard in the spring they are probably a mated pair and going to nest within 50 yards of where you see them. If you manage to see them carrying nesting material-twigs, hair, moss, feathers-try to determine where they land. If you repeatedly flush a bird from the same area, there is probably a nest there. If you see a bird carrying food in its bill you can be assured it is feeding young.
If you discover the actual nest, always stay as far away as you can and use binoculars to get a close-up view. It's important not to disturb the vegetation around the nest, as this is the birds' protection.
Many of our woodland birds nest in cavities of varying descriptions. We can encourage them to nest in our backyards by providing birdhouses. The Canadian Wildlife Service gives hints for attracting specific birds.
Wrens, for example, like to build "dummy" nests before they choose one in which to lay eggs, so provide more than one box to improve the chances of attracting a nesting pair. Robins and other species may attempt a second nesting and benefit from the chance to do so in a second box.
Tree Swallows are social birds and will nest in boxes within 10 feet of each other. If you place the boxes in an open area within sight of open water your chances are even better.
Chickadees, however, will not tolerate any other chickadees in the vicinity of their nest and prefer their houses set close to shrubs or bushes.
Many birds start nesting in March, so have your nest boxes up early. There are special box designs for each kind of bird; the most important feature is the size of the entrance hole. Check your library or on the Internet for nest box plans.