Courtship is in the air for many birds

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About two weeks ago I heard the first turkey gobble of the year. It must have been right on the edge of the yard because I heard it while still lying in bed just before dawn.

A gobble is such a distinctive sound that even a child can recognize it. Mature males (toms) gobble to attract attention of hens. When hens appear, the tom fans his tail, extends his flight feathers and puffs his body feathers to appear larger, and struts about to impress potential mates.

The colorful skin on the gobbler’s head (red, white, blue) reminds watchers why Ben Franklin wanted it named the national bird. And when he gobbles, there’s an explosive quality to the sound. Displays can last 30 minutes or longer. The gobble is the turkey’s song, and it serves dual purposes. It is a “keep out” signal to other males. It identifies the gobbler’s turf and warns other males that, if they approach, he will run them off.

Females hear gobbles as an advertisement that a healthy male is inviting hens to join his breeding harem. After mating, hens disperse to build a nest, lay and incubate a clutch of eggs and raise the poults. There is no daddy duty for gobblers.

Practice session

Last week I came upon two birds on a rural gravel road. I sat in my car for a few minutes until they lost interest in me. They were two young males (jakes) who would never be able to successfully compete with a mature tom, but they were sizing each other up and essentially jousting with each other. Their beards were short, and the skin on their naked heads lacked bright colors.

I inched the car closer until I was about 20 feet away and watched the action unfold. The jakes went chest to chest, pushing and occasionally nipping each other. At one point, one pushed the other completely off the road over the embankment, but it quickly bounded back, eager for more. The shoving match lasted about six minutes, and then the jakes parted and disappeared into the woods.

These bouts prepare young males for a time, perhaps next spring, when they can seriously compete for hens. They will be bigger, stronger and most important, able to impress the ladies.

DVD recommendation

Turkeys aren’t the only birds with courtship on their minds. With long days and warmer temperatures, song bird nesting season is also underway.

I have four bluebird nests (each with five eggs), one chickadee nest, one tree swallow nest and one house wren nest in some of my nest boxes. There is still time to get nest boxes up for cavity-nesters, and I’ve often written about nest boxes and recommended books about nest boxes in the spring.

This year I’m recommending a DVD entitled Building Birdhouses with A.J. Hamler, a bird loving woodworker from Williamstown, West Virginia.

Some do-it-yourselfers prefer to see how to complete a project rather than read about it. If that sounds like you, then this DVD is just what you need. Over the course of 162 minutes, Hamler takes the viewer through three complete projects.

The first project is a basic bluebird house, which is also suitable for chickadees, titmice, house wrens, tree swallows and nuthatches. Hamler explains the tools needed, the type of wood to use, and how to size the lumber. He meticulously explains each step, so even a beginning woodworker should be able to follow along.

The second project is a winter roosting box for bluebirds and other cavity-nesters that conserve body heat by roosting communally. Again, Hamler’s instructions are detailed and clear.

The final project is a fancier, more decorative box that’s painted and designed to look like a real “house.” I’ve never been a fan of fancy boxes, but birds use them, and that’s all that matters.

Building Birdhouses is produced by Popular Woodworking Magazine and is priced at $26.99. Order at any bookstore, nature center, wild bird store or online at www.amazon.com.

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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. He can be heard on Birds & Nature from 3-4 p.m. Sunday afternoons on 620 KHB Radio, Pittsburgh, or live online anywhere at www.khbradio.com, or on the Tune-In radio app. Visit his website at www.drshalaway.com or contact him directly at sshalaway@aol.com or 2222 Fish Ridge Road, Cameron, WV 26033.

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