Friday, December 4, 2009

Phenology for December 2009

by John Latimer

This time of year we turn our attention to the critters that don’t migrate or hibernate or if they do migrate they come here to spend the winter in balmy northern Minnesota. For some like the robins it is a gamble for if they do survive they have their pick of the territories in the spring. That is a big “if” however because they can easily get trapped and perish before they can travel far enough south to find food.
I heard of one intrepid robin that joined a flock of bohemian waxwings. The bohemian waxwings are an example of a species that migrates to the area to spend the winter. The robin and the waxwings survive the winter eating fruit and by joining this flock the robin markedly increased its ability to locate food.

Cardinals do not migrate. They are expanding their range ever farther north. The note from 1988 was the first I had seen in the area. Now there are regular sightings in the Grand Rapids area. In the spring and summer when they are singing they can be heard all along the Mississippi river in town. Many people have reported seeing them at their feeders throughout the year.
If a cardinal shows up at your feeder this winter it may stay. They prefer black oil sunflower seeds and a place to hide when they are not eating. A few balsam or spruce near the feeder will give them the shelter they seek. Cardinals often visit the feeder just around sunrise and again just before sunset. What they do the rest of the day remains a mystery.

Chickadees are year around residents wherever they are found. They are inquisitive and convivial guests at nearly all feeders. There is some evidence that some chickadees do migrate, though not always in a north south direction. Whatever the case there is almost always a flock near every feeder. These flocks assemble shortly after the young birds are fledged in mid-summer. They remain together on a territory throughout the winter. Often you can hear them when they contact another flock as much singing will occur. The territories tend to be 10 to 20 acres in size and are defended by the entire flock.
In late December and early January the dominant males will begin to sing a new song. It is a lovely two note “fee bee”. When you hear this it is a sign that the males are starting to choose a mate and the flock will be breaking up soon. Often two or more males within a flock will sing at the same time. This can signal a struggle for territory.
As breeding pairs chickadees require about a ten acre territory and the males are trying to see who will control the area. They seldom sing this fee bee song inside of ten yards of one another. Once they have closed to that range a much quieter battle ensues. The songs are different and may be accompanied by chases. Sometimes the birds will appear to stop the skirmish to feed a bit. The real struggle for territory occurs as they approach their nest building phase in April. In the meantime watch and listen as the chickadees surround us with their exuberant good cheer through the depths of winter.
John Latimer is well known throughout northern Minnesota for his phenology work. He appears weekly on KAXE radio in Grand Rapids, and audio and twitter archives are available here. His work is a frequent feature on MyMinnesotaWoods. This article also appeared in the Duluth Senior Reporter. It is printed with the author’s permission.
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