Early each March, a ruddy brown songbird arrives in my garden and lingers for a few weeks. It’s a hermit thrush, and surely no bird was so misnamed, because there is nothing reclusive or haggard about this creature. He struts across the perennial beds to greet the spring-surfacing worms. His plumage is so rich in its understated color that it looks as though it were made by Armani, and he lets his wings droop a little, the way Italian movie stars of yore draped their topcoats over their shoulders.
By early April, my little black-eyed, speckle-chested Marcello Mastroianni has moved on, to the sweet life in someone else’s garden, somewhere north.
Around the same time, a cardinal shows up, but he arrives with his mate. Unlike the thrush, the cardinals are in a homemaking mood, and they will stay around all season to raise their young. A branch had fallen and draped itself across a boxwood, and the cardinals used it as a ladder to snack on the shrub’s tender new growth. I moved the branch, but the cardinals perched without it. It turned out the boxwood had plenty of buds to spare.
Concurrently, a pair of mating mourning doves arrived. They, too, have spent the past month nest-building. They can be seen in beds browsing for strands of reeds and soft twigs. In the field behind the garden, a pair of flycatchers showed up a few weeks ago, and they have been flitting about ever since.
This is also the time a revved-up warbler arrives, and he can be seen fluttering up and down various plants, snacking, I hope, on aphids. The warbler is black with a white throat and reveals a yellow patch at the top of its tail. My well-thumbed “ National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America” tells me that it is a yellow-rumped warbler, a male in breeding plumage. He’s flashier than Marcello, but not as cool.
When you compare bird species, the remarkable thing is not the obvious physical differences but the variety of behavior and demeanor. The doves are edgy, cute and a little clownish; the cardinals are confident but wary; the flycatchers are manic aeronauts; the warblers are always on the move.
Next month, my catbirds will show up. This is a pair that has been spending summers in my garden for years. Catbirds are fairly tame and like robins will join you in the garden, especially if you are digging up grubs and worms. A garden that is full of birds in spring is marvelous, but what I find miraculous is that my feathered friends are the same individuals that return each year to the garden, or possibly their offspring. I take this as a huge compliment; they’re saying, “We find shelter and food in your garden,” “Your fish pond is one big bird bath,” “We are glad you don’t use pesticides.”
What is also miraculous is the way that these beautiful animals navigate with the seasons. How this is done is not fully understood, but it is thought to be achieved through a combination of factors.
Andrew Farnsworth, a migration expert at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, told me in an email that birds “use a tremendous number of cues to figure out where they are and how they get to where they are going.”
These include the ability to calibrate direction by the setting sun and by the patterns of the stars at night. Birds also plug into the Earth’s magnetic field, perhaps at a cellular level.
These powers of navigation are also related to how a bird is wired to remember the solar and celestial landscape of the place where it hatched, he wrote.
Birds, thus, were carrying around their own GPS long before our digital age. When you think that they also have to build their own homes, provide their own defense, find their own safe food and water, and raise young without the benefit of medical assistance, while remaining so chirpy, it makes us seem downright bird-brained.
The one challenge for these birds is to keep humans (and cats) away from their nests as they incubate and then raise their young. For the gardener, this means being sensitive to nest sites and giving birds some space.
On the Cornell Lab’s website, you will find general information about landscaping for birds.
For this reason, spring nesting season is not the time to rip down bowers and hedges, or to do extensive pruning of the same, or to power-wash sides of buildings where birds may be nesting. Wait until later in the year.
When I asked Farnsworth about the thrush, he said he might be headed for northern Canada but may well summer in the Adirondacks. (I’m coming back as a hermit thrush.)
Just when I thought Marcello had flown off, back he came, hopping along the patio, plunging his beak into the soft earth and chowing down on a worm. But he will leave soon, and I’ll offer a nod of farewell. Not so much an “addio” as an “arrivederci.” See you later.
Also at washingtonpost.com
Read past columns by Higgins at washingtonpost.com/home.