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Hearing More Birdsong? Sorry, It Doesn't Mean Spring Is Coming

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Bryan Pfeiffer
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The black-capped chickadee is one of approximately 50 bird species that stay in Vermont during the winter, according to Bryan Pfeiffer, field naturalist and expert on a variety of winged creatures.

If you've been out in the early morning lately, you may have been hearing the welcome arrival of more birdsong. Don’t get too hopeful – it doesn’t mean spring is coming.

Bryan Pfeiffer, field naturalist and expert on a variety of winged creatures, explains that the increase in daylight in late winter triggers the production of hormones in male birds, which causes them to sing.

“It’s kind of like birdy Viagra,” he says, jokingly. “It gets them thinking about making more birds as they start singing.” He explains that birds time their breeding based on day length because weather and temperature can fluctuate greatly from year to year. “What’s more reliable is day length, and day length does all sorts of great things for wildlife this time of year. Birds start singing because they feel territorial and the birds that have been with us all winter, many of them are now starting to sing.”

So what birds have been with us all winter? A small but strong bunch, according to Pfeiffer. “Well, the amazing thing about how birds deal with winter in Vermont is most of them leave town. We have 250 bird species that might show up in Vermont in any given year, and only about 50 to 55 are year-round residents,” says Pfeiffer. 

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Credit Bryan Pfeiffer
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A variety of colorful birds can be found at feeders throughout the state in the winter, including the common redpoll.

He explains that the species who do stay have adapted and aren’t bothered by extreme temperatures. “This time of year, you walk out in the morning and you hear that cardinal singing or that house finch breaking into song,” he says.

"The amazing thing about how birds deal with winter in Vermont is most of them leave town. We have 250 bird species that might show up in Vermont in any given year, and only about 50 to 55 are year-round residents." - Bryan Pfeiffer, field naturalist

Pfeiffer explains that there are a variety of colorful birds found at feeders throughout the state in the winter. “Everything from chickadees to these common redpolls that are visiting now, or even another really cool winter visitor called bohemian waxwing, which is showing up on some of the ornamental trees, feeding on the crab apples,” he says.

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Credit Bryan Pfeiffer
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The bohemian waxwing is a unique bird, breeding in the northwestern part of the continent and migrating southeast some years.

The bohemian waxwing is a unique bird, breeding in the northwestern part of the continent and migrating southeast some years. “They have their black turtlenecks and black berets on and they are reading Allen Ginsberg,” Pfeiffer jokes. “But they are actually nomadic and quirky. They are free spirits … in the last month or so, they’ve been showing up in Vermont and what’s great about [them] is they’ll be in our cities because that’s where we have many of the ornamental crab apple trees. They’re neighborhood birds, they are remote in breeding but neighborly to us in the winter.”

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Credit Bryan Pfeiffer
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A snowy owl takes in the sun in East Montpelier.

Pfeiffer says they have been seeing more birds wintering farther north of their range. “It’s hard sometimes to attribute this to climate change. There’s any number of reasons birds might shift their ranges and we play a role in this by feeding birds.” He explains that species such as the Carolina wren and northern cardinal do better when they are fed over the winter.

But, he quickly points out that they don’t need us to survive the winter. “As I said, these birds do fine, they’ve been around … about 3,000 times longer than we’ve been on the planet. So these birds can handle the winter,” says Pfeiffer.

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