Hi Doug:

It used to be that the sight of an American robin was welcomed excitedly as “the first sign of spring!” Now, with warming temperatures they’re quite common in Maine all winter long. This year I’ve also routinely seen other species we don’t think of as winter birds here, such as song sparrow, turkey vulture, northern mockingbird, and Carolina wren. I’m wondering what species you now consider the “new and improved” first sign of spring in Maine, and when you expect them to arrive?

– Brad Woodward, Old Orchard Beach

One of my favorite parts of being a birder and naturalist is making the connection to nature that Brad is talking about, in this case the awareness of the changing seasons based on what birds are around. Spring is ushered in with the change in diversity of our birds and emergence of amphibians. As Brad mentions, with the changing climate, we are seeing a shift with many of the phenological markers occurring earlier each year, so it’s fun to ponder a new “first sign of spring.”

Tree swallow. Maine Audubon photo

The first bird that comes to mind is the red-winged blackbird. Males arrive a few weeks before females, are usually in full force by the end of March, and quickly fill in almost any cattail marsh you can find. Singing their loud “konk-a-ree” songs and flashing their red epaulettes, they are hard to miss. However, even the red-winged blackbird is becoming more common on our snowy landscape. Using Cornell’s eBird database we can see the trend: In 2000, the big pushes of blackbirds were first being reported between the third and fourth weeks of March. By 2008, this push was happening between the second and third weeks; by 2016 it was between the first and second weeks, and now we’re seeing it close to the start of March.

Two birds that I think of as a good indicator that spring is here are piping plovers and great egrets. It may surprise readers to learn that piping plovers, an endangered species nesting on Maine’s sandy beaches, arrive as early as March. We tend to think of them as summer birds – perhaps you’ve seen areas of beaches with signs to help protect their nests – but this is a good reminder to keep dogs on leashes on the beach and help these birds out.

Both the piping plover and great egret are fairly range-restricted in Maine, with plovers only on sandy beaches and the egrets in salt marshes. If I had to pick a more widespread species that we can all be on the lookout for as a herald of spring, it would be the tree swallow. Tree swallows, with their iridescent blue backs and clean white undersides, are always a treat to see swooping around, catching aerial insects (another maybe less pleasant sign of spring). Having spent the winter around the Gulf of Mexico, tree swallows have a fairly consistent arrival back to Maine toward the end of March, certainly by the first of April. So, while turkey vultures and killdeer may be false flags, the arrival of tree swallows is a good sign that we’ve turned the page on winter.

No, your eyes are not deceiving you. That’s a blue jay resting on the hand of a man in Edgecomb after a snowfall in early February. Photo courtesy of Kathy Hartley

HARDLY THE SHY AND RETIRING TYPE

I had an experience in early February, after a snowfall that was delightful, but also made me curious. As my partner Brian was outside beginning to shovel, a blue jay landed very close to him and just seemed to be incredibly curious. As Brian moved closer to our house, the blue jay followed him, and actually let him pick it up. Brian called for me to come out to witness this. The jay was absolutely unafraid. Brian handed it over to me and it enjoyed being “snuggled” and pecked now and again at my silver zipper. (Eventually) I placed him on top of our woodpile on the front porch . . . (it) looked at me through the window, and then flew away. It was an absolutely magical experience, but I was wondering if you might explain this behavior.

– Kathy Hartley, Edgecomb

This sounds like a true Cinderella moment. Open the door and a bird comes to you — not quite fluffing your pillows or helping you dress in the morning, but I guess that’s what makes it a fairy tale. As Kathy mentions, this perceived level of comfort from the blue jay to allow itself to be picked up and handled is very odd, and is certainly not a good survival technique. There are a few possible explanations.

First, it is worth noting that blue jays are corvids (that is, in the family corvidae), and have some close relatives that are also fairly well known for peculiar behaviors. Crows are especially well known for some of their antics with humans, famously leaving “gifts” in exchange for food and other handouts. John Marzluff’s “Gifts of the Crow” is a recommended read for anyone interested in this phenomenon and on the intelligence of these birds. Perhaps most familiar to Mainers are the “friendly” visits from Canada jays (formerly called gray jays, or colloquially whiskey jacks) that will happily come take handouts of trail mix and often pose for photos on hands or heads. So, like their cousins, perhaps Kathy’s blue jay is an individual that has some familiarity with being hand fed. As I’ve mentioned before, though, the habituation of wildlife to humans as a food source can often result in a negative outcome for the animal.

Even for jays used to being hand fed, Kathy’s scenario is very unusual. The level of “affection” being shown, especially the described “snuggling,” is perhaps a result of improper (and probably illegal) rearing by a human. The only reason I can think of that a blue jay would intentionally go to and be comfortable around a person, as described, is because it was imprinted as a source of care (perceived as from a parent) while it was a chick. This might be a stretch, but as blue jays are such common backyard nesting species, I wouldn’t be surprised to know someone found a chick out of the nest and tried raising it. This is illegal, and any baby birds found that need help should be brought to a trained and licensed wildlife rehabilitator. Well-intentioned people trying to raise birds usually don’t have the right food for a developing bird. Even in the case of this jay, that apparently had adequate nutrition, we can see the negative impact of human-rearing in the form of losing their aversion to predators.

I’m going to stick with my above guess, but there’s another reason for a similar encounter, and that would be a window strike. Most of the stories I hear of people able to get this close to birds near their houses occur because the bird was a recent victim of flying into a window, and is recovering. In this case, the best thing to do is give the bird space and keep predators (especially pets – though of course your cat shouldn’t be outside anyway) away while it recuperates. If that can’t be done safely, you can try putting the bird inside a box with some cushioning and keep it in a dark and quiet place, checking periodically until you hear the bird moving and ready for release.

This sounds like Kathy had an amazing experience. I’d thoroughly enjoy a blue jay landing on me someday (during an Audubon bird walk would be nice timing, to any jays that are reading this) but let’s all do what we can to keep wildlife wild.

Do you have a nature question for Doug? Email questions to [email protected] and visit maineaudubon.org to learn more about virtual and backyard birding, online classes and other programs about wildlife and habitat.


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