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The Groundhog Stirs: Early Signs of Spring
The current warm-up has sure got me thinking of spring. It's a harbinger of beautiful times to come. But even without this warm-up, many of our animal friends would be thinking of spring already. I used to think that spring made an appearance in March and hit full-on in April. Turns out that many animals change their behavior in February or even January in response to the lengthening days. In February, we gain about thirteen minutes of sunlight per week. (In March, the gains are even greater.) According to Ken Lassman in Wild Douglas County, the Osage Indians of this area called the February moon the "Light of Day Returns Moon." Animals respond.A number of mammals are beginning to mate. Lassman writes that January and February are mating seasons for red foxes, beavers, opossums, muskrats, minks, cottontail rabbits, and coyotes. You'll know the squirrels in your neighborhood are mating if you see a lot of chasing. Females may be chased by as many as ten males at once. Listen for the sound of claws on bark as they race up and down tree trunks and for a vocalization that some have described as a "stifled sneeze." Cottontail courtship is even more interesting to watch. A male chases a female. Eventually, the female stops running and faces the male. She boxes at the male with her front paws, and then one or both leap straight into the air. Quite a sight out my family room window!Owls have begun mating, too, many weeks before most other birds. Owlets take a long time to mature and need these extra weeks of growth in order to be self-sufficient by fall. You may hear owls calling in the early evening and on into the night. While many other birds will not mate until April or May, behavior often changes much earlier. Look for pigeons flying under highway bridges, exploring nesting sites weeks before they move in. Watch also for birds to begin "brightening up." Over the next few weeks, the bills of starlings will become more yellow, and their feathers will become brighter and glossier. The sparrows that are so ubiquitous in the trees on Mass St. will soon look especially colorful. Perhaps most exciting to us winter-weary humans, the song birds will begin singing soon. Lassman writes that we can often hear morning bird songs in the second week of February. I've heard them already. (It's true! Listen! Many birds begin territorial and courtship behavior weeks before the first crocuses and forsythia bloom.) It's easy and fun to identify the chickadees "spring soon" call. Ronald Rood, in the book Who Wakes the Groundhog, describes it this way: "Whistle as high a note as you can for half a second. Then drop down a tone and whistle another. The two notes, that's all." Try it in your neighborhood, and you may inspire a chickadee (or several) to respond.We'll be marking Groundhog Day on Saturday, and there will be lots of talk about spring. It's a fitting and fun tradition because hibernating mammals like the groundhog/woodchuck often come out of their burrows during intermittent warm spells to search for food. Our resident woodchucks are probably stirring this weekend. Interestingly, the date of Groundhog Day corresponds to much older cultural and religious celebrations like Imbolc and St Brigid's Day that celebrate the lengthening day and early signs of spring. So, whether or not the groundhog sees his shadow on Saturday, you and I know that spring is already making an appearance. And we can use the media attention given to Punxsutawney Phil as a reminder to pay attention to the natural world around us.P.S. What early signs of spring have you noticed? Please share your observations.