January is the beginning of nesting season for birds

On the afternoon of Dec. 26, the thermometer on the back porch read 73 degrees. Carolina wrens, cardinals and white-throated sparrows sang as if spring had replaced winter.

A few weeks earlier, the morning temperature had plunged to four degrees. In between we’ve had several measurable snow falls and school delays.

As I write this Dec. 30, the temperature is a seasonable 30 degrees. The Old Farmer’s Almanac predicts a cold, snowy winter; we’ll see.

Feather magnet

I enjoy snow and cold temperatures — in moderation. One reason I enjoy January is winter weather pulls birds into the yard like a feather magnet.

During mild spells, birds subsist on natural foods — weed seeds, berries, nuts, insect egg cases and cocoons. They visit feeders occasionally, but they seem to prefer natural foods when they’re available.

That’s my standard answer to all who write asking what happened to their winter birds (and I get those letters every year).

On a recent snowy morning, birds flocked back to the feeders. I filled the feeders and scattered about black-oil sunflower seeds on trays and on the ground.

Before I even finished, chickadees, juncos and goldfinches swooped onto the feeders, and a flock of shyer cardinals waited in the thickets for me to leave.

In fewer than five minutes, hungry birds surrounded the feeders waiting their turn. It felt like a January morning.

Nesting season

Another reason I like the first month of the year is it marks the beginning of the nesting season for birds. It may seem odd any bird would begin nesting just as winter is getting under way, but great horned owls do.

Pairs have been hooting and courting in the woods since Thanksgiving. Crisp fall nights seem strangely quiet when the local pair wanders out of earshot.

Listen

Tonight, listen for a pair of horned owls dueting in the woods. The song is a series of muffled hoots. The male, though smaller than the female, has a deeper voice, so it’s easy to detect a breeding pair.

Great horned owls are the “hoot owls” people sometimes hear, but seldom see. Listen for a series of five to seven simple hoots. A five-syllable song may suggest the phrase, “Don’t kill owls, save owls!”

By mid-January, great horned owls have usually claimed an old crow or red-tailed hawk nest. They don’t bother building their own.

Sometimes they’ll choose an old tree cavity, if there’s one big enough within their territory.

Older females may lay eggs by the end of the month, though many probably delay egg-laying until February.

Clutch size averages two to three eggs, and incubation takes about 35 days. The female does most of the incubating.

After hatching

After hatching, both parents provide a steady supply of rabbits, rats, mice, opossums and skunks for the owlets.

When hunting is good, great horned owls stored uneaten food in the nest. If the extra food freezes, great horns thaw it by “incubating” it.

Young great horned owls begin climbing branches near the nest at about five weeks of age; they begin to fly at nine to 10 weeks (that’s about mid-May).

Two reasons

There are probably two reasons great horned owls nest so early. First, they’re big enough to stay warm and find enough food.

Second, young owls need as much time as possible to grow and learn to hunt so they can be independent for their first winter.

Mastering the art of predation requires lots of practice. That means young horned owls must leave the nest about the same time most birds just start nesting.

Though nature in winter has much to offer, the best part about January is after three months of ever shorter days, photoperiod begins to lengthen. It’s just a minute or two each day, but those minutes add up.

Won’t last forever

Increasing day length is the only absolutely reliable environmental cue winter won’t last forever.

Yes, I enjoy winter — perhaps it’s because I have no choice.

But I’m no fool. January’s longer days invariably mean spring’s twin sisters, April and May, are on the way.

About the Author

Scott Shalaway, who holds a Ph.D. in wildlife ecology from Michigan State University, writes from his home in rural West Virginia. A former faculty member at Oklahoma State University and the University of Oklahoma Biological Station, he has been writing a weekly nature column for newspapers and freelancing for magazines since 1986. Send questions and comments to scottshalaway@gmail.com. You can also visit his Web site, http://scottshalaway.googlepages.com. More Stories by Scott Shalaway

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