Birds take spring stage
My outdoor thermometer read 26 degrees below zero at 7 a.m. on March 7. I was feeding the birds at the time, though few birds were active. But I did hear a curious birdsong that stopped me in my tracks. Surprisingly, from the top of a nearby oak tree, was a lonely looking male red-winged blackbird singing his territorial song. Although an early arrival, watching his display and listening to his song reminded me that courtship displays, songs and calls of other birds will soon be seen and heard all across the Northland.
Spruce grouse, for instance, occur throughout the northernmost regions of Minnesota. A docile bird that often tolerates close encounters with humans, the bird has acquired the not-so-endearing nickname "fool's hen" or "fool's grouse." A striking looking, darkish bird with white bands across its breast and colorful heads, the male spruce grouse struts in turkey-like fashion by fanning its tail feathers. Loud "claps" are produced from wing-beats against the air during courtship and territorial displays.
Male ruffed grouse display in similar fashion as spruce grouse, but with a notable difference. A displaying male will extend his "ruff," -- long and dark feathers located on their neck -- and fan his tail feathers. Then, choosing a log or stump to stand upon, he will use his tail to prop and support himself as he begins a series of wing-beats against the air.
The muffled thumps begin slow and end in a loud and rapid series of wing beats that sound like an old tractor or someone beating on a drum. This "drumming" is most often performed in the springtime during territory establishment, though sometimes is performed in the autumn as well.
Sharp-tailed grouse, a species of "prairie grouse," gather each spring in large groups on dancing grounds or "leks" where males perform courtship dances to attract mates. With pointed tails held erect, clicking tail feathers, and wings extended laterally while stamping their feet, the male birds vocalize an amazing repertoire of assorted clucks, cackles and coos. As many as two dozen or more males and females will assemble on traditional leks every spring.
Another prairie grouse is the greater prairie chicken. Long ago, pioneers had observed countless numbers of both prairie chickens and sharp-tailed grouse on the expansive grasslands of Minnesota's open landscapes. Like sharp-tailed grouse, prairie chickens gather in large groups on what is called "booming grounds." Located in prairie habitats of northwestern Minnesota, prairie chickens depend on grasslands for survival.
Booming grounds refer to the incredible booming sounds that males produce when they inflate the bright yellow-orange air sacs on the sides of their necks. The hoots and moans sound eerie and, like sharp-tailed grouse, the performances are generally conducted at dawn to attract hens. Male prairie chickens also erect special neck feathers, called pinnae, during their foot-stamping musical courtship displays.
Another fascinating avian courtship display is that of the male American woodcock. Each spring in Minnesota, which can be as soon as mid-March, male woodcock gather in grassy openings and fields near dense forests and woodlands. Called "singing grounds," male woodcocks aggressively defend their individual singing ground from other males. And it is within these places that they perform their amazing aerial courtship flight displays to attract females.
Beginning every day during the breeding season for about 30 minutes to an hour at dawn and dusk, the performance is both musical and spectacular. The male starts by "peenting," as its called, from the ground, which is a nasal sounding vocalization produced from its throat. After numerous peents, the male abruptly departs into the sky. Special primary wing feathers produce a twittering noise as the male woodcock's flight carries him 100-300 feet above his singing ground.
At the apex of the flight he begins a corkscrew descent, creating a wonderfully musical bubbly, chirping and warbling song until, just moments before landing, he quits and glides to nearly the very spot he took off from. Almost immediately he begins his series of peents once again. The flight, lasting about a minute, is repeated continuously until full daylight or darkness overcomes the woodland.
A close relative of the woodcock, the common snipe, is yet another species of bird noted for fascinating and entertaining courtship display. Male common snipes perform throughout the day, but typically are most active at dawn and dusk. Called "winnowing," the males produce the unique flight-song while flying high above their individual territories. The musical display's purpose is to attract mates and to defend protected space from other male snipe.
After the male snipe ascends to great heights, he then dives while beating his wings. Though the noise produced sounds vocal, the somewhat hollow and whistled descending song is actually created as air flows over his spread-out, specially modified outer tail feathers. The thin and curved outermost feathers of the male snipe's tail, not his wings, are responsible for that delightful courtship song of springtime.
Indeed, birds of many a feather will soon be filling the forests and prairie with an assortment of songs and displays. Each bird, from migrant songbirds to year 'round residents, has its own unique springtime display, song, and call that's sure to please as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.
Blane Klemek is the Bemidji area assistant wildlife manager, DNR Division of Fish & Wildlife. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org