Throughout the winter months, I had four Downy Woodpeckers which visited my suet feeder every day: two males and two females. I assumed they were from the two pairs which had nested in the neighborhood last summer. One pair nested somewhere upstream, the other somewhere downstream. When they fledged young, the parents came to the feeders, chased by the fledglings. The young were fed, and eventually learned to feed themselves. Each pair of Downy Woodpeckers raised two broods. They were busy parents.
I don’t know if Downy Woodpeckers maintain a pair bond through the winter. Probably not, since mortality is high among small birds, and survival of oneself is more important than a mate. Sometimes during the cold months I would see two males, or two females, or a mixture of three birds, and sometimes all four. It was foraging behavior I observed; if there was any pair bond which remained, it was incidental.
Given the two pairs I had last summer, and their presence through the winter, there were several possible scenarios. Perhaps there was an interloping male trying to mate steal from one of the wintering males. Perhaps one of the wintering males had been widowed and coveted his neighbor’s wife. Perhaps there was an attempt at involuntary wife swapping. Whatever precisely was going on, it was marvelous entertainment.
Now on to another of my common backyard birds, the Black-capped Chickadee. I never figured out the numbers or dynamics of the wintering chickadees. They moved through the feeders in loose flocks, but feeding as individuals. They are still feeding as individuals, but there are new dynamics at work. Last weekend I watched a half dozen or more chickadees as they hurried through the tree branches and bushes, made quick trips to the bird feeder, and pounded open the sunflower seeds for the tasty meat inside. As one of these tiny birds sated its appetite, it flew off, but not alone. A second chickadee flew after the first, followed by a third. They all swirled as a fourth joined the chase, and then a fifth. The boys were in hot pursuit of the girls.
All the birds are doing it.
Blackbirds for example: until the orioles (which are blackbirds - Icterids) finally arrive, there is nothing musical in blackbird songs, but the blackbirds sing anyway, stretch and strut, spreading tails and wings, all in an effort to impress the females.
The phoebe is doing it, with his maddeningly monotonous “song” which he repeats from dawn to dusk, with a wag of his tail accompanying each so-called song. “Phoe - bee” (tail wag) ... “phoe - Bee” (tail wag).
Older generations of writers called it the family season, or if they were being bold, the love season. They said it was the time for domestic duties, for solicitousness to one’s mate, followed by parental devotion to one’s offspring.
As Bob Engel explains in his article in the April newsletter of Southeastern Audubon, it is all triggered by sunlight. As the days start to get longer, physical changes are switched on. As the number of daylight hours increase, the internal evolutionary manual carried by the birds tells them they will likely survive winter and now it is time to insure the survival of the genes. In the male bird, his testes swell. Testosterone is released. He begins to sing. More testosterone is released. He becomes aggressive, defends his territory, and pursues females.
Physiological changes are also triggered in the female, because as the days continue to lengthen, she welcomes the pursuit. In many species, she selects a social mate who demonstrates good foraging ability and domestic skills to help with the young. She also gathers DNA for her young from as many sources as she can.
It is wild and raucous ... and all of the birds in our neighborhoods are doing it. More will be arriving soon to join the festivities.
For the birds, Spring is the sexiest time of the year. For a bird watcher, it is the most entertaining time of the year.