By Tracy Koenig
Signs of spring are always welcome here in Wisconsin, especially after a cold winter like this one. Those signs are all around us if we just know where to look. Wildlife signs begin as early as January, and are triggered by minute increases in daily light level.
Black capped chickadees are common feeder birds that also thrive on seeds from native plants left standing in our gardens throughout the winter. Most people are familiar with the harsh warning call of this perky bird – chickadee-dee-dee-dee. Did you know that the number of dee notes in the call increase with the level of alarm? Around the middle of January, males begin to sing their mating call. It can best be described as Hey sweetie (or sometimes Cheeseburger) – you can hear this call in our area now. The song increases in frequency as winter progresses into spring. Nesting occurs April through June.
A bird that has “love” and mating on its mind at this time of year is the Great Horned Owl. The largest of our urban owls, this bird is well adapted to living in populated areas. Often large trees in parks and cemeteries provide a platform for these nesting giants. Great Horned Owls do not build their own nests, but reuse nests left by hawks, squirrels, or crows. Mating occurs in January, with the female sitting on eggs in an open nest during some of our worst winter weather! At this time of year, you can hear them at dusk and near dawn distinctively calling to each other hoo-h’HOO-hoo-hoo. Leaving dead vegetation on native gardens in the winter provides cover for the small rodents and rabbits that serve as food for Great Horned Owls.
Our most famous sign of spring is the groundhog (also known as woodchuck, whistle pig, or marmot), Groundhog Day is celebrated on February 2 each year, but it isn’t just a day for us to wish for spring. Groundhogs hibernate from late September until February. Temperature triggers their emergence each spring; males first followed by females, with courtship high on the list of priorities. Why is this timing of mating so important? Groundhogs must precisely schedule their reproduction. If they mate too early in the spring, their young won’t be able to find food once they are eating on their own. If they wait too late to mate, their young won’t have time to store fat before they stumble into a hole for that long winter “snooze.” So around Groundhog Day, the males go looking for females and spend some time courting them. Mating occurs in the next several weeks when spring is truly in the air.