Early songs signal return of spring

Frances Wood
On Birds

Near the end of last month, my friend Ed phoned because he’d just heard a robin singing its spring song. “Is this strange for January?” He asked.

I too had heard some early songsters. A dark-eyed Junco had attempted a short bell-like trill from the top of a tree. A song sparrow had dusted off its song in preparation for attracting this year’s mate.

Black-capped Chickadees pronounce their “chick-a-dee, dee, dee” call year-round. Even this early in the season, they also voice their soft, tonally flat “phee, bee, bee,” the birds’ spring breeding song.

Now, I have my ear to the trees for more spring songs.

Ed’s question is one that I often hear these days with climate change on people’s minds. Many studies point out that some bird species are migrating back to their breeding territories and beginning their nesting up to two weeks earlier than the long-term average for these activities.

Bird species are also expanding their territory northward.

One example in my own garden is the Anna’s Hummingbird. Our common spring and summer hummer is a different species, the Rufous Hummingbird, which migrates back and forth to Mexico. But the Anna’s is a non-migratory bird that we see all year, at least recently.

This green-backed species with an iridescent rose-red throat and crown traditionally lived only south of San Francisco. Beginning in the 1930s, the Anna’s Hummingbirds began extending their range northward. The birds sustained themselves on small insects and introduced plants in urban and suburban gardens. Climate change has also played a part by allowing exotic plants to thrive farther north.

Anna’s first bred in Washington state in 1976 and finally reached my garden this fall. At least two young birds have settled into my neighborhood and visit my sugar water feeder daily. Likely, they are last year’s offspring from a nearby nest.

From Rachel Carson on we’ve looked at birds as the “canary in the mineshaft” or the indicator of change in our environment. In mineshafts, canaries expired if deadly fumes were present, thus warning miners to vacate quickly. Birds still play an unparalleled role as indicators of change.

Now it is the birds’ ability to take flight and move in response to climate change that interests us. The more adaptable bird species can leave unsuitable habitat and search for food supplies in new areas.

As I walk out into my own garden to listen for spring songs, I pray that we don’t neglect to enjoy the song as we work to preserve the songster. Environmental work takes heavy lifting these days, and we must not lose heart. It was the early morning dawn song of spring birds that captured my heart years ago and turned me into a bird watcher. I must remember to let that inspiration into my life as often as possible.

February offers many ways to engage with birds. Stop and take a moment to follow a red-tailed hawk as it arches across the sky. Enjoy the simple delight of chickadees, towhees and sparrows pecking at your feeder.

Take in the majesty of a bald eagle perched in a tall conifer. Eagles may seem ho-hum common today, but as recently as the 1960s they were only seen on the backs of dollar bills.

Travel to the Skagit Flats and become immersed in the wonder of 10,000 snow geese blanketing the fields or creating a snow flurry in the sky. The geese stay through March.

Listen for owls hooting in wooded areas during our dark evenings. Owls are one of the earliest of all local birds to breed. They finish their courtship well before Valentine’s Day and are sitting on eggs by now.

Thanks, Ed, for reminding me that birds are announcing spring even while our native plants are still dead and dormant. Their early season song can energize us to come out of our burrows and sing in exaltation.

Frances Wood can be reached at She is the author of “Brushed by Feathers: A Year of Birdwatching in the West.”

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