Thursday, March 10, 2016

Cute - or Deadly?

It’s a beautiful week in central Maryland, and I’m on spring break, which means I’ve been out a lot, looking at birds. As I walked along the Potomac River yesterday morning, there were Eastern bluebirds everywhere, one of my favorites. I love that flash of blue in the sunshine, that bit of chestnut brown on the breast, their big, round cartoon eyes, and their perky little song.

But these particular birds were not being cartoonish and perky; they were fighting. There were eight total, four males and four females. They seemed to be fighting over territory, with each pair trying to run off the other pairs. However, it may be that they were fighting over each other. It’s early in the mating season, and pairs may not yet be securely established. Plus, although most songbirds are generally monogamous, both male and female Eastern bluebirds always look to get a little action on the side. (This article provides a concise summary of bluebird mating habits with more such fascinating information.)

Whatever the reason, the fighting continued for the entire twenty minutes that I stood there watching. The birds chased, dove, flapped, and pecked - and they were so caught up in their actions that they were oblivious to my presence there, flying past me several times and letting me get pretty close to them. It struck me that they were wasting an enormous amount of precious energy on this process. Cold winters are hard on bluebirds, which generally stay put in our region for the year, and many of them die in the early spring because they are starving and weak and food resources have not yet picked back up. But here they were, willing to spend such long periods of time in the energy-sapping process of fighting.

This morning I had the thrilling opportunity to see two Northern flickers do their mating dance. (You can watch a quick video of this neat little dance here.) Another energy-intensive process, it went on for minutes and was followed by quite a bit of flying and chasing and chirping. Northern flickers are another year-round bird that can be exhausted and weak by this time of year, yet every year they summon up the energy for this elaborate mating process.

I often hear people talk about how “sweet” the sound of the birds is, how “happy” they sound when they sing or “cute” they look when they zip around our yards. I have used this language myself! When we hear birdsong, it makes us feel sweet and happy, and so we assume that those nice emotions must be shared by the pretty, energetic, brightly-colored birds around us.

But there is nothing sweet or happy about these springtime behaviors. These birds are in a fight for their lives and the right to claim the best territory, find the best mate(s), and raise the best brood. Those beautiful songs contain threats to competitors and lures to potential mates. Many of the males will lose out and be resigned to a life on the margins, trying to mate surreptitiously with an unattended female or move in on another male’s territory when he dies or is injured. The females will wear themselves out with raising brood after brood and helping to defend their territory against predators, other birds, and those marginal males. By the end of the nesting season, toward the middle to end of summer, all of the adults will be looking ragged and worn.

As I finished my walk this morning, I saw a male song sparrow, singing his heart out in an evergreen by a creek - the ideal spot for a song sparrow to claim as his territory. So tiny, singing his beautiful little melody - the words “cute” and “happy” definitely came to mind. Funny to think that, in his own mind, he was being “fierce” and “threatening” and asserting his “masculinity” - perhaps not too different from the young man who then drove by in his huge dually truck with double exhaust stacks.