Wednesday, February 5, 2014

14 Things about Valentine’s Day, No. 5: How the Birds Observe Valentine’s Day

Vintage Valentine image from Thrifty Images on Etsy

It is hard to imagine how, when the snow is so deep as it is this year, and the air is so cold, birds could possibly be engaging in springlike mating behavior. Yet it is this premise that is the basis for Chaucer’s poem The Parlement of Foules, whereby the birds gather in a grand assembly on St. Valentine’s Day to pair up, and so, by poetic extension, should humans.
Other Valentine-themed literature and imagery make the same connection, and so one might naturally ask, just how fanciful is this idea? Or was it perhaps first proposed in some mild southern latitude where spring really does begin in mid-February?
But in fact, even up here in the frigid north, birds do start their pairing behavior around Valentine’s Day, apparent to the observing ear (if you dare go outdoors without your ear muffs) by the increase in bird song. Chickadees and cardinals begin whistling, nuthatches voice their nasal-sounding nih-nih, and woodpeckers start hammering away their territorial drum beats. All of those sounds are the birds calling for mates, and they start their amorous chatter around the middle of February.
“These are all winter birds,” said Massachusetts birder and author John Hanson Mitchell to National Geographic News. “It’s still winter, but the light, the changing light, has a hormonal trigger, and that starts the birdsong.”
Mitchell is the author of  A Field Guide to Your Own Back Yard. He says the singing begins with the birds that never migrated, which is why he calls them “winter birds.”
The singing is triggered by photoreceptors at the bases of the birds’ brains that respond to the diminishing period of darkness. So, for example, here on the 45th parallel, by Valentine’s Day we are getting about an hour and 20 minutes more sunlight than we were at the winter solstice.
And that just might be enough sunshine to make anyone want to sing.

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