First glimpses of spring abound

Last Sunday, while driving to church, I glanced at the snow covered farm fields and, to my surprise, I saw a woodchuck’s head poking up through the snow. It was quite apparent this was the groundhog’s first glimpse of the outside world since last fall. On our way home from church, the groundhog was still at the den, but now there were muddy tracks in the snow, where he had ventured a short distance from the den.

Wouldn’t you know, I didn’t have my camera in the truck and had to return home to pick it up and then return to the den site. However, the woodchuck was neither peeking out of the snowy ring around the den, nor in the area. I did take several pictures of the newly opened den, along with the vegetation the woodchuck had taken into the den last fall.

I talked to a man at church who said he had a raccoon eating seeds from under his bird feeder. On that same weekend, I saw a road-killed skunk and a road-killed opossum. The light sleepers are up and about but will return to their dens when cold weather sets in again. I anticipate that I will soon see my first robin of the spring.

Diary entry for Feb. 16, 2003: Saw a large flock of male robins today. When looking through past diaries, I found that this is the earliest that I’ve ever seen a flock of robins here in Bradford County. Usually, it is near the beginning of March when I first observe a flock of robins moving through the area.

Each spring I watch the early-arriving robins trying to cope with one of our late March snows. Although robins are not a common sight at bird feeders, it is during these late storms that a robin can be seen visiting your bird feeder. I’ve often wondered why robins come back so early in the spring. Why don’t they wait a few weeks until the weather warms up instead of fighting late spring snow and ice storms?

The reason is male robins come back early so they can set up their home territories with the females following about 10 to 14 days later. The juvenile birds (both males and females) from the previous year will be the last to arrive. The male robin returns to the territory he had the year before. While the female surviving the migration will come back to the same locality.

Females and juveniles are not as precise as adult males. However, there are many documented cases in which a female mated with the same male and built her nest in the same tree or on the same porch for several or more years in a row.

One study showed that 55% of a group of robins returned to the same area; 20% returned within 10 miles, and 10% settled 100 miles from where they were born. When a robin does change its territory, it does so in a southern movement. For instance, a robin born in the east would not migrate to the west, but rather stay farther south from where it was born.

Wouldn’t it be easier if males and females came back at the same time? Sure, but I doubt if the poor male would be able to stake out a territory; defend it from aggressors and woo a female all at the same time.

The average size of a robin’s territory is about one-half acre. Of course, this all depends on the robin population and the food supply. Usually, the first male robin to arrive in the north tries to stake out a large territory. As more and more robins stream north, the size of the territory shrinks.

A bird will defend the center of its territory more aggressively than it will the outer edges. Most of the time, the bird defending the territory will win the conflict, especially if the fight takes place near the center of his territory. If a male robin is disposed from his territory (which rarely happens), the female does not leave with him but accepts the winner. Evidently, the females are attracted more to the territory than to the male.

Although the female also helps to defend the territory, more of her energy goes into nest-building and egg incubation. If something were to happen to the male, the female would be quite capable of defending the territory.

Most birds will allow different species in their territory, but they will not allow any species, including their own, near their nest site. Not only birds but also squirrels, cats, dogs and even humans are sometimes driven away from the nest site.

The robins that return to Bradford County early will be in for some tough times. However, these robins are a sign of things to come, and after this hard winter, I’m sure we will be anxiously waiting for spring.


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