News & Features

Breeding Season Begins in Winter

Barred Owl in Snow by Hal Korber, PGC

Some birds just start early. Really early. Breeding season has begun for a few species, even with a snowy landscape and frigid temperatures. Those deep “Morse code-type” hoots of Great Horned Owls echoing across the hollow are all about courtship and pair bonding. The deep hoots are the males and the slightly higher pitched hoots the larger females. Another male Great Horned Owl might hoot back in exchange. Great Horned Owls start up the breeding season as early as December. Barred Owls start announcing themselves with their deep “who cooks for you” hoots a few weeks later and are breeding by mid-January. A trip to your local birding hotspots at night could yield some hooting owls, increasing your site’s species list and adding a breeding bird report. Great Horned Owls often hoot just before the sun goes down. Other birds can begin nesting early. Bald Eagles are rebuilding nests in winter and many will have incubating eggs by the end of February .  Several resident songbirds begin singing in winter, already beginning to set up territories and attract mates.

It is easy to add breeding information to your eBird reports. New features for eBird data entry allow observers to add that interesting data for each species. Hooting owls are declaring territory (code X) or behave as a courting pair (P). Many other codes are possible as you observe different behaviors through the year. Anyone who has participated in a Breeding Bird Atlas has had experience using these standard breeding codes also adopted by eBird.

Although not as glamorous as owls and eagles, Rock Pigeons also are “in the mood” by January. By February 1, another established exotic—the House Sparrow—also can be counted among breeding species. They may not be glamorous, but it is interesting how these exotic species have adapted to North America, and provide urbanites with birds to watch.

Using safe dates from the 2nd Breeding Bird Atlas, you also can count other breeding species in the coming months. Common Ravens are among the early nesters, building large stick nests on cliffs and artificial structures such as transmission towers and football stadiums. Their loud croaks declare their presence from a long distance. Ravens once were exclusively birds of mountain forests, but now nest in agricultural areas.

By mid-March, most woodpeckers are in breeding mode and are drumming to declare territory and attract mates. It is a trick to learn to identify drumming woodpeckers to species, but worth the effort.  The loud, resonating drumming of the large Pileated Woodpecker can be  heard from long distances.  It is easier to see woodpeckers early in the season rather than after leaf-out.  The displays and courtship of woodpeckers are a feature of the woodland birding in March and April. 

Popular backyard and forest resident songbirds such as Carolina Chickadees, Tufted Titmice and Northern Cardinals also can be counted as breeding birds in mid-March. Black-capped Chickadees a bit later, by mid-April if not earlier.  Many males begin singing on brighter winter days. 

Ruffed Grouse are drumming and woodcock are ‘sky dancing’ by early April. Both species are of great interest to the conservation community and records of these species are very much appreciated in eBird.

eBird has been a tremendously successful “citizen science” program and is constantly evolving and improving. As part of a significant upgrade in eBird features, breeding codes available for observers to use. These codes are very much the same as those used in the Atlas.

A goal of eBird and sponsoring state organizations is to collect information about the timing and locations of bird nesting. This will be the first continuous, year-round, worldwide, breeding bird atlas effort. Basic information about breeding phenology and regional changes in behavior is very useful, especially for “Species of Special Concern” including our state’s endangered and threatened species (see the PGC website for a list of E / T species). The recent 2nd PBBA has taught us alot about the breeding behavior of our regularly nesting birds, and we are eager to learn more, especially about the rarest and more irregularly nesting species.

Unlike the PBBA, eBird does not use “safe dates.” Rather, it relies on the good observations of the birder who records the behavior of the birds. It is important to record behaviors as they are seen. We encourage eBird participants to look for breeding behaviors and record them, especially for rare species. If you are unsure of breeding status or what you have observed, do not record a code, please put notes in your species comments. We always welcome extra notes about interesting observations. The now-published 2nd PBBA book should inspire all of us to seek more information on our breeding avifauna. Future users of the data can analyze these breeding data in conjunction with the accumulated knowledge of the local status of the species. Anyone who still has the 2nd PBBA Handbook for Participants is invited to use the “safe dates” there as a guideline for entering the lower confidence “Possible” and “Probable” codes for eBird data entry.

As example of the missed opportunities to use these codes was the Dickcissel invasion of 2012. Pennsylvania birders certainly responded to this opportunity to see Dickcissels in several counties with more than 160 records of the species in the state. However, breeding confirmations were made at only three locations in Clarion, Lancaster and Montgomery counties. Was this lack of breeding confirmation due to a lack of Dickcissel nesting activity or a lack of recorded breeding behaviors? From good notes made with some records, we learned more about the numbers of Dickcissels at some locations and about the habitat they used. Thanks for that! We also learned that several of these locations were mowed or otherwise disturbed during the nesting season, preventing nesting activities and successful broods. But, we wonder about sites that were not well-documented and if Dickcissels nested at more locations than where reported.

eBird is a powerful tool for “citizen science” that we intend to improve with your help.  Experienced eBird observers have an opportunity to mentor those that have not participated in Breeding Bird Atlas. There always are new people to educate and inform about ways that eBird can provide valuable information.

Doug Gross, Pennsylvania eBird