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It Was a Winter for the Birds. But Spring Is About to Come Calling.

By Adrian Higgins
Thursday, March 13, 2008

Next week marks the end of another disappointing Washington winter. Too mild, and too few of those magical moments when the sun breaks through after a snowstorm and the acute silence is cut by the sawing call of the chickadee.

Soon that song will be nothing more than a grace note in the oratorio known as the dawn chorus. Rising temperatures and longer days stimulate the hormones, and songbirds start crooning in pre-dawn darkness. This starts about an hour before you're ready to wake up. On Day One, you open your eyes and reach the inescapable conclusion that life is a joy. By Day Four, you're looking for a boot to throw.

That will do little good. The birds are programmed genetically to chirp away at an ungodly hour. Most of the song is from males. The females listen and decide which suitors have the best lungs.

People who study birds offer different theories about the timing. One is that the dawn hour is quiet, so the song will carry farther. Another is that by singing heartily before they've had their Wheaties, the birds are saying, "Pick me! I'm strong."

I was walking the dog the other day, and a Carolina wren was in a neighbor's forsythia bush, practicing for next week. Unfazed by approaching man and beast, the bird just kept belting it out. Thank you; you've got the part.

Birds, thus, are as true an indication of the shift of the season as any plant, perhaps more so. As much as the February blooms of camellias and mahonias, the behavior of birds lately adds credence to the notion that our winters on the East Coast are milder and our climate is changing.

In mid-February, the National Audubon Society and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology organize a nationwide backyard bird count ( http://www.birdcount.org). This year a record number of participants (an estimated 127,500) handed in 85,000 logs of species spotted at their bird feeders over the Presidents' Day weekend. The tally is timed to get a snapshot of the nation's backyard bird life before the sap rises and spring migration begins in earnest.

This year's count was the 11th. There have been too few to detect scientifically accurate trends but enough to suggest some. "We are seeing quite a few species wintering in the Southern states, birds that would normally go to South or Central America," said Rob Fergus, an Audubon scientist.

One finding is that two species of hummingbirds -- the rufous and the calliope -- that ought to be in Mexico are hanging out in the Gulf states, perhaps because people are feeding them or planting vegetation that provides continuing shelter and sustenance.

Some individuals may be programmed to fly east rather than south, Fergus said, and the combined effects of bird feeding, lusher gardens and climate change could be allowing them to survive winter in greater numbers and pass on the secret to their chicks.

In Takoma Park, Roger Griffis and his 3 1/2 -year-old son, Mateo, dutifully logged the birds in their back yard and noticed among them a red-breasted nuthatch that had failed to make the usual migration south. The red-breasted nuthatch tally for Maryland was 596 this year, compared with last year's 41.

By the end of February, Griffis had detected the surest sign of spring: The male cardinal had switched from his winter call to his spring serenading. In early March, the tufted titmouse followed suit. "It seems to me early this year," Griffis said.

That means, among other things, that I've missed my chance to try to get birds to feed out of my hand, winter being the prime hand-feeding season.

Hugh Wiberg, a birder in Wilmington, Mass., has written a book that advises how to get titmice, chickadees and other fearless passerines to nosh out of the palm of your hand. His book, published by Storey Books, is titled "Hand-Feeding Backyard Birds."

When he calls it a step-by-step guide, he isn't joking: "On the fourth Sunday, I moved five paces toward the feeder and turned into a statue." That may have had something to do with the subfreezing temperatures. Anyway, Wiberg is far more patient than I; I don't think the effort is worth it in breaking down the barriers between species.

One of the things I miss most about the England of my youth is the robin redbreast. This is not the large, flocking American robin but a small, solitary bird the size of a wren. The wings and back are a ruddy brown, the underside creamy white turning to scarlet orange, which wraps around its cute little face. It is known for its tameness.

I was walking along a remote border of the Oxford Botanic Garden last summer when I noticed a robin scratching at the mulch under a rhododendron. I went down on my knees, poked in the dirt for earthworms, which I found, and tried to hand-feed the bird. It would not come to my fingers but stood bravely nonetheless. I threw a worm or three its way, and it approached and ate them.

Then it fluffed itself up and started warbling, a full song but so faint as to be almost inaudible. I thought at the time it was singing for its supper. It was a magical moment, even if I later read that robins like to chant softly merely to amuse themselves.

I recounted the story to my brother, and we were joking that I could smuggle a robin back to Alexandria (ecologically unwise and illegal, of course). Then I wondered if I might keep one inside, as a canary. He reminded me of that verse by William Blake: "A Robin Red breast in a Cage/Puts all Heaven in a Rage."

Wouldn't want to risk that, though I no longer believe that a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.

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