Every morning for the past several months I have opened my eyes at dawn to a combined joy and anxiety. I hear the dawn chorus of birds defending territory and displaying their sex appeal.
I also hear the voices shouting for change. Now waking up to bird song isn’t quite as simple and dreamy; and naturalizing needs to be examined more thoroughly. And yet, I am still present in it all — migratory songbirds are an ephemeral pleasure that buoy the spirits, lending the endurance needed to strike down hate and inequity. Appreciating birds has often been a practice in mindfulness, helpful in other aspects of life.
As a person who enjoys nature at home, the nearby wildness that melds with my everyday, I secretly dread summer near sea level. My better half finds this absurd. Typically this is the time of sun and beach and tans (or sunburns for me) and reprieve from the gray. However, as a birder I’ve enjoyed the slight extra space I had to meditate on backyard birds this spring. It’s brought a moment of peace to wake up with birdsong before the waves of despair flow in. And now it feels like it’s all over. Mornings are significantly quieter.
This is a personal melodrama, because the birds that breed all over the Hill, mostly haven’t gone (and there are greater things to struggle with than phenology). They’re just quieter. At this point in the year all our breeding songbirds have had a go at one nesting attempt. Year-round residents might be on to their second batch. The awkward Dark-eyed Juncos and Spotted Towhees tottering about throughout June are testament to this. The marathon is only half done for many birds, as failed nesting attempts are rebounded from, and second clutches are underway. Birds are still singing at dawn, they’re just more focused on emptying the nest.
Supporting this explosion of new life are mounds of insects. A lot of birds that eat seeds or fruit during the winter will switch entirely to insects during the breeding season. Insects mash up into lovely baby food. The annual insect explosion of spring and summer in the Northern Hemisphere is part of why many birds are drawn into the dance of migration in the first place. There’s a huge advantage to breed where food is abundant and leave when it’s not. Alarm bells have been ringing for years now about declining flying insect populations, and many insectivorous birds have suffered as a result: swallows and warblers come to mind.
So spring is spent, and songbirds are either close to wrapping up a first batch, or popping one more in the oven for genetic posterity. It’s a race to get the babies out and on the wing. For some species this is rushed along, even before wings can truly create lift. Noisy, obvious baby birds begging for food from open nests are a risk to their own safety (an easy snack for crows or squirrels). Birds with open, cuplike nests like those of Dark-eyed Juncos will risk pushing their babies out of the nest early, even before they can fly well. This gamble has the drawback of fledglings being vulnerable, for not being complete sitting ducks. On the flip side, birds that nest in cavities can take their time and are often noisier (woodpecker babies are very loud), but have to weigh more limited housing availability.
Popular media and general anthropocentrism has led some to believe all birds are gently guided under gossamer wings through their first years of life. For songbirds in particular, this is almost entirely inaccurate (crows and jays are some of the exceptions; yes, they’re songbirds). Halfway through June I started seeing baby birds chasing about their parents, begging for food that was given less and less willingly as the days went on. Young songbirds often face the world entirely on their own after only a couple weeks, with eventual migration not far off.
After the whirlwind of baby-rearing down here in the lowlands, a lot of adult birds simply leave. Peak food is over for many and there’s still hard work ahead. An adult neotropical migrant will need to bulk up and oftentimes molt all their feathers, which are thrashed after breeding. And while spring is over in Seattle, it’s just getting going in the mountains. Some of the migratory songbirds in our area disperse into the mountains as July runs into August and enjoy a second season of plentiful food to recuperate. This phenomenon is not as well studied as it could be, but it goes to show there are many more complexities built into a system that we often boil down to migrate south, then migrate north.
Since I don’t see many people these days, it might actually feel like all my friends are gone when the warblers and waxwings and grosbeaks start dispersing. But not just yet. In the Puget Trough, July is probably the only month where there is very little migratory action. Failed breeders give up and leave, unable to find suitable habitat for a second round because we live in a city, and well, that habitat isn’t there. But mostly, it’s still heads down, filling gaping maws of many babies. I often feel sorry for these adults, but then I see them flitting between the branches of nearby tree tops like it’s nothing, and I’m again, immensely jealous.
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