Even as we stare down the barrel of the coldest, darkest days of early January, the earliest signs of spring will soon begin anew - even before the first mail-order seed catalogs arrive. Early harbingers of this new natural year are subtle. Spring renewal begins with hardy birds that remain winter residents, those species best-adapted to our northern winters.
By mid-month, owls begin a new breeding season. Barred owls and great horned owls renovate summer woodland hawk nests or wetland heron nests to establish breeding and feeding territories, advertising while calling to potential mates and driving off rivals from prime small mammal hunting areas. Northern “Gray Jays” inhabit the most inhospitable, frosty alpine summits of the White Mountains year-round. During warmer months, they store the entire winter's food supply in spruce bark crevices using sticky salvia. They begin nesting in February and will incubate eggs by March even as heavy snow continues to fall. Early breeding and chick-rearing allows adults to focus exclusively on collecting and storing food. Jays retrieve their summer larder hidden In nooks and crannies while traveling in loose, cooperative family flocks in winter.
More familiar Black-capped chickadees begin to practice a two-note “Spring’s Here” breeding song even before mid-January. Dominant birds win the best hollow birch snags for excavating nest cavities. Other early cavity nesters include the woodpeckers which will soon resume drumming, tapping-out the rhythm that will anchor a swelling symphony of spring birdsong. Happy Natural New Year!