For the Birds

by Blue Wind Kami

The very first signs of spring are appearing here in the foothills of Colorado's Rocky Mountains. The days are longer, the snow has turned slushy, and -- surest sign of all -- our summer birds are reappearing. Ancient avian courtship songs manifest the best promises of the coming season, weeks before the first new leaf or tender blade of grass appears.

I heard, with mixed feelings, the first Meadowlark song of the season early last week -- so lovely and so frighteningly early. The weather is still often bitterly cold, and will be for at least 8 more weeks. The males come first to grab and defend a good territory and nesting site. They endure many weeks of ice, snow and unimaginable hardships before the girls show up to choose a mate. These brave boys sing songs of glad tidings, and male challenge, while they wait.

Sandhill Cranes have been migrating through Colorado for the last several weeks. They woo each other on their way to summer nesting grounds. When they court their mates and reaffirm their monogamous life bonds, they dance, bowing and leaping in balletic unison. One cold spring morning several years ago, just before the sun rose, I watched a flock of tens of thousands of leggy cranes slowly awaken. At first there were a few soft calls and an occasional shaking of feathers. As the light brightened first to a deep scarlet and then to vivid reds and oranges, the cranes started chatting and wading through knee-deep water, languidly poking around in the mud looking for breakfast tidbits. The noise increased, a certain anticipation raised the pitch of their voices, and then...then the first pair bowed to each other.

Wings gracefully spread to their full six-foot span, they dipped their bodies and bowed their heads. Quickly straightening to their nearly four feet of height, they cocked their heads flirtatiously, then leaped straight into the air. They came down together to bow to each other again as formally as European nobles dancing the minuet.

Almost immediately, other more tentative bows and leaps appeared here and there among the flock, but I kept my eye on that first pair. They were so at ease with each other, so graceful and confident that they were a pleasure to watch. Several young, unattached males thought so too, edging closer and closer as the dance became more intense. One gawky adolescent moved in very close and started bobbing and hopping, more-or-less in time with them. The older male stopped, pushed the sharp point of his stiletto beak firmly against the youngster's chest and declared quite clearly, "Back off sonny, you're not old enough to play. And even if you were, this is my woman!" His woman watched with calm approval. Sonny backed off so fast he almost tripped over his own feet. The mated couple bowed to each other and resumed their mating dance.

Out on Colorado's eastern plains, male Prairie Grouse will soon start to dance, trying to outdo each other strutting, jumping, booming, posturing and stomping. They frantically compete to impress every girl grouse who daintily wanders around the dance floor. She will carefully inspect and judge every male's display before choosing.

The huge flocks of geese who spend winters here in Colorado are now breaking up. So instead of hundreds of geese flying overhead in V formations, the sky is full of pairs, faithful to each other for life, calling comfortably to each other as they fly side-by-side. Soon they will be nesting, so we will have to be careful not to ride our horses too close to them. The gander is so protective he is willing to take on a 1200 pound horse and its rider. And the female is more than happy to back him up.

One spring we ordered a dozen female Rouen ducks, a domesticated egg-laying breed that cannot fly. The hatchery always sends 13 baby ducklings because sexing is not an exact science. Sure enough, we ended up with 12 females and a male who, when they all achieved sexual maturity, was in testosterone heaven. With no rivals, he thought he was God's gift not just to his harem but to the entire world. One day, in the midst of his first season of full masculine glory, a pair of Canadian Geese, three times his size, landed in the pasture. He immediately took umbrage and marched out to do battle. The closer he got, the bigger they looked and the slower he waddled; until finally his sense of self-preservation overrode his sense of male outrage. He turned tail and ran back to the girls. Turning around to face the geese, he thought, "Hey, they're not so big!" and bravely strutted back towards them, only to slow down, then run back once again. He did this five times, oscillating back and forth between the extremes of righteous male challenge and abject fear. His girls were not impressed, I don't think the geese even noticed, and I nearly fell down laughing.

A woodpecker was doing his rat-a-tat-tat on our metal chimney cap this morning. I hope he is the one who has, for the last few years, used a nearby telephone pole for his courting displays. He is so cute in his earnest enthusiasm. I always hope he gets a really good girl who will appreciate his sincerity and dedication to doing things right. I was once privileged to watch a mated pair of woodpeckers courting. He was in his glory, all dressed up in his courting plumage and completely confident. She was demure in her softer colors. He flew to a branch about six feet above her. She stared intently up at him, quivering with anticipation. Suddenly he hurled himself down towards her, at the very last second stalling in midair and flipping over to flash the bright feathers on his underside. She was appreciative, impressed, adoring, and so excited. He repeated his acrobatic midair maneuver several more times. Each time their intensity increased until finally she raised her tail in blatant invitation. He hopped on her back and they coupled so enthusiastically that they both fell off the branch.

Ah, spring!

©2002 by Blue Wind Kami

Blue Wind Kami lives in Colorado with her husband, a redneck cat and 6 horses. She loves weather, animals of all ilk, and fine words well used.

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