Breeding Behavior in Winter?
By Sam Nunes, Environmental Educator
We have now entered the cold winter months and it seems that everything is dormant. But if you listen, you may hear songs heating up in the bird world. Breeding season is not for a few months from now, but some bird species like to get an early start! The low sounds of the male Great Horned Owl mixed with the territorial melodies of the black capped chickadee start to play throughout the forest at this time of year.
Great Horned Owls are unlike other common bird species because they reproduce in the winter. Late January to early February is when owl pairs meet up. But for weeks before this, even before the New Year, males start their hooting calls. It is characteristic of the Great Horned Owl to hoot year round, but it is more intense and frequent during this time. When the pair finally meet up, a courtship dance takes place, which consists of lots of tail bobbing and feather flaunting, bill rubbing, and high pitch sounds. You know, the usual things people do when they’re in love! You can expect to hear Great Horned Owl mating calls most frequently in the morning.
The Black Capped Chickadee doesn’t move as quickly as the Great Horned Owl. During the winter months, chickadees start singing their territorial song, which is triggered by the lengthening daylight hours. This song includes two half second long notes, with the first note being a higher pitch than the second. Their song is short and sweet and sends a clear message throughout the forest: “This is my territory!” Territory boundaries dissolve a bit in the winter months while food is scarce, and you can often find chickadees around other songbird species like juncos and titmice, but chickadees like to get a head start on preparing for the spring breeding season. Chickadee songs can be heard throughout the day as long as they don’t feel threatened.
Bird songs and calls are very complex and send many different messages. Scientists are just beginning to recognize similarities between bird song and human language. In the winter, there may not be much to sing about, but the Great Horned Owl and the Black Capped Chickadee demonstrate two uses for bird song and why it is especially important during these months!
Ackerman, Jennifer. The Genius of Birds. New York: Penguin Random House LLC, 2016.
Holland, Mary. Naturally Curious . North Pomfret: Trafalgar Square Books, 2010.