Of course, we think birds make their long journey north to the Upper Valley simply to entertain and delight us with their cheerful songs and dazzling plumage, but that certainly is not so. The birds return for one purpose, to raise the next generation of their species. From the time they arrive, it is a firmly scripted rite that goes from courtship, to mating, to nest building, hatching, feeding and fledging.
On the home property, this annual passage is occurring all around as I write. There are some pairs undertaking the cycle of rearing offspring that are doing so in plain view. There are others who we suspect are raising the next generation, but we can only make that supposition on anecdotal evidence. What are some of the keys when direct observation is not possible? Seeing a bird carrying nesting material is one. Suddenly noticing a particular species has “disappeared,” because its song is no longer being heard ala the old adage, “A chattering bird builds no nest.”
This spring, several nesting pairs and their nests have been identified. Almost all of them are “old hands.” The eastern phoebes already have raised one brood and are working on another under the eves of the front walkway. A pair of eastern bluebirds is busily shuttling food to one of the pole nest boxes in the field beyond our stonewall. The chipping sparrow couple has been active in an old apple tree by our fire pond. If they follow patterns of previous years, this will be the first of at least two broods they’ll raise. New to this year’s mix of known nests is a pair of Baltimore orioles that have set up housekeeping in a birch nearby the house.
In the “heard not seen” category is a pair of broad-winged hawks that for the fourth consecutive year is nesting in woods too dense to allow observation adjacent to the house. Another suspected parenting couple is the song sparrows whose nest is out in a field. If you get to near, as I did yesterday while planting some saplings, they will chip at you angrily, but the precise location of their nest is unknown.
Then there are the birds that disappeared when they “went silent” but are now back chattering away. These include many of my year round resident forest birds; chickadees, downy woodpeckers, blue jays and white-breasted nuthatches.
When it comes to watching this annual ritual, one can only wonder at and be in awe of the single-mindedness of the parents. There is almost never any deviation from the script. The birds return in the spring. Eventually, the young appear. There is the non-stop feeding driven by forces seemingly drawn from some inexhaustible font of energy. The young fledge. There may be another brood, or it soon may be time to think about heading south for the winter where the process is repeated continuing the remarkable cycle of avian life.
Photo credit: Bluebird boxes. Tenants wanted. Blake Allison - Lyme, NH