To code or not to code, that is the question. Take our quiz!

By Nick Anich February 23, 2017
Mourning Dove Zenaida macroura

With the unseasonably warm temperatures, we’re seeing some early signs of breeding activity. But are they worth entering Breeding Codes for yet?

Here are some key things to remember:

The main question is: Will this bird actually breed at this location?

Obviously migrants can move thousands of miles between breeding and wintering ranges, but even birds we think of as residents can move several miles between their summer and winter homes. The reason we have the Breeding Guideline Bar Chart is because we want to encourage you to be conservative. Yes, that Northern Cardinal singing in February could nest in your yard, or it could leave in April and find another spot 2 miles away to nest.

When to buck the bar chart?

For low-level Possible codes H (in appropriate habitat) and S (singing), be conservative, don’t code!

For high-level Confirmed codes such as CN (carrying nest material), NB (nest building), and ON (Occupied Nest), please do code, and include comments or pictures.

Probable codes can be the trickiest, but codes like C (courtship display/copulation) are worthy of entry, (except in situations where the species is unlikely to breed – migrant waterfowl is a good example) and should include comments or pictures. Codes like P or T can be tricky, and involve some interpretation of the situation. Whatever you decide to do, please enter comments! Your comments will allow the Atlas coordinators to properly assess your observation at a later time.

The quiz

To assist you, we list the front-end week at which species hit B on the Breeding Guideline Bar Chart (Breeding) and E (the transition window of Either breeding or wintering/migration). Read more about the Breeding Guideline Bar Chart here, which serves as a general guideline as to when you can expect species to be breeding. If you haven’t read about the Bar Chart, you’ll want to read that article before taking the quiz.

1. You hear a Northern Cardinal singing on February 23.
Bar Chart: E begins 3rd week March, B begins 3rd week of April.

2. You find an American Woodcock displaying on February 23.
Bar Chart: E begins 4th week of March, B begins 1st week of April.

3. You see an Eastern Screech-Owl in a nestbox on February 23.
Bar Chart: E begins 1st week of March, B begins 4th week of March.

4. You see a Song Sparrow with a mouthful of grass on March 20.
Bar Chart: E begins 1st week April, B begins 3rd week of May.

5. You see an American Robin in your yard on March 20.
Bar Chart: E begins 4th week March, B begins 3rd week of May.

6. You see some Common Goldeneyes displaying on April 5.
Bar Chart: E begins 3rd week May, B begins 2nd week of June.

7. You see a pair of Bald Eagles and one is in the nest on February 23.
Bar Chart: E begins 2nd week February, B begins 1st week of May.

8. You see Mourning Doves copulating in your yard on February 23.
Bar Chart: E begins 2ndweek of March, B begins 3rd week of March.

9. You see Sharp-tailed Grouse displaying at a lek on March 1.
Bar Chart: E begins 3rd week March, B begins 1st week of April.

10. You see a male and female House Finch at your feeder on February 23.
Bar Chart: E begins 2nd week of March, B begins 3rd week of April.

The answers

1. You hear a Northern Cardinal singing on February 23.
Bar Chart: E begins 3rd week of March, B begins 3rd week of April.

Answer: Don’t code! It’s well in front of the Bar Chart and S (Singing) is a low-level code.

2. You find an American Woodcock displaying on February 23.
Bar Chart: E begins 4th week of March, B begins 1st week of April.

Answer: Don’t code! Woodcock can display during migration. Keep checking this spot to determine whether this is a local breeder or a migrant, or come back near the end of March when it’s safer to assume this bird will breed here. 

3. You see an Eastern Screech-Owl in a nestbox on February 23.
Bar Chart: E begins 1st week of March, B begins 4th week of March.

Answer: Don’t code! It’s earlier than the bar chart and some owls roost in boxes in winter.

4. You see a Song Sparrow with a mouthful of grass on March 20.
Bar Chart: E begins 1st week of April, B begins 3rd week of May.

Answer: Although it’s ahead of the bar chart, you’d code this as CN (Carrying nest material) if the bird was clearly gathering nest material.

5. You see an American Robin in your yard on March 20.
Bar Chart: E begins 4th week of March, B begins 3rd week of May.

Answer: Don’t code! H (In appropriate habitat) is a very low level code, and shouldn’t be used outside the bar chart. Robins are common migrants.

6. You see some Common Goldeneyes displaying on April 5.
Bar Chart: E begins 3rd week of May, B begins 2nd week of June.

Answer: Don’t code! Although goldeneyes breed rarely in Wisconsin, this precedes the bar chart significantly and many of these birds, although they will display and copulate during migration, are headed for Canada.

7. You see a pair of Bald Eagles and one is in the nest on February 23.
Bar Chart: E begins 2nd week of February, B begins 1st week of May.

Answer: Code it as ON (Occupied Nest)! Eagles get started fairly early, and although this is in the E window, in a situation like this you can assume the bird is sitting on a nest.

8. You see Mourning Doves copulating in your yard on February 23.
Bar Chart: E begins 2ndweek of March, B begins 3rd week of March.

Answer: Code it as C (Courtship display/copulation), but enter comments! Doves have among the longest breeding seasons in Wisconsin and can often be found extending the breeding window on both ends in years with warm springs or autumns. Mourning Doves can winter in areas they don’t nest, so this is about as early as you’d want to code something, and some birds might be on different schedules during this transition you wouldn’t want to be recording singing birds this early in the season.

9. You see Sharp-tailed Grouse displaying at a lek on March 1.
Bar Chart: E begins 3rd week of March, B begins 1st week of April.

Answer: Code it! Sharp-tailed Grouse are known to display at specific lek sites near where they breed, so even though this is earlier than the chart recommends, it merits coding as C (Courtship display/copulation).

10. You see a male and female House Finch at your feeder on February 23.
Bar Chart: E begins 2nd week of March, B begins 3rd week of April.

Answer: Don’t code! In addition to being early, feeders are a situation to be wary of. You can’t be sure if birds are just both there and interacting because the food is there, or because the birds are paired up.  Also beware of coding birds as T (Territory defense) at feeders, because they may just be fighting over the food, not defending a territory. Although later in the season you can get confirmations of young coming to feeders with parents (FL [Recently fledged young] and FY [Feeding young] codes)!

Remember:

  • The early phenology can cause resident species to get started a bit earlier than normal.
  • Weather conditions over the coming weeks will dictate effects on the phenology of early migrants such as American Woodcock, Red-winged Blackbird, and Canada Goose.
  • If your observation is early according to the chart, hold off a bit if it’s a Possible code, but feel free to enter Confirmed Codes. Probable codes are the trickiest, and it depends on the situation.
  • Comments, comments, comments! Enter a note in eBird to help us as we review these early records.
  • Don’t stress out about this! Just do your best and enter comments, there will be a data review step where some of this gets cleaned up if we make a few mistakes.
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