Recently an eager bird watcher asked, “What’s the earliest bird to nest here on Whidbey?” I could tell her that the early bird gets the worm and swallows are harbingers of spring, but found I had to do some research.
Any guesses who the contenders might be?
In spring the drive to reproduce becomes every adult bird’s raison d’etre. Migrants fly thousands of miles to breeding territories. Some males molt into elaborate plumage and engage in energy-consuming displays. They sing at the top of their little thoraxes to attract a mate.
But who actually gets the first egg into the nest? Who takes home the gold in the race to raise young?
What about those swallows? Tree Swallows are the first to arrive in early March to snatch up the available cavity nesting spots. But swallows aren’t anxious to settle down to the business of laying eggs. It happens in early May, which puts them in sixth place. No medal hopes there.
A tiny iridescent migrant arrives even before the swallows, the Rufous Hummingbirds. They’ll be begging at sugar water feeders about the time you read this. The males arrive first, stake out their nesting territory and await the females. But the females take their time choosing a mate and building a nest, and don’t get to egg laying until mid-April. That earns them fifth place.
[You may have picked up that I’m using some general terms, such as “mid April” or “early May.” From year to year and even within each species there are wide variations. There is no Omega clock pinning the time down to the hundredth’s of seconds.]
One species that may pop into your minds is the Mallard. In early May we see gaggles of chicks, fresh from the egg, traipsing behind their mothers. Even though this species is quick to display their precocial young, they miss a spot on the podium, securing fourth place.
Perhaps it’s one of those LBBs, little brown birds, who live here year round. Since they don’t have to migrate, they can get into nest-building earlier.
About the time I’m planting my peas, Song Sparrows, which spend the winter scurrying around the ground like feathered moles, hop to the top of shrubs and belt out their songs. They get right to the business of laying eggs in early April and are awarded with the bronze.
Increased daylight hours and the availability of protein-rich food, often in the form of insects, is what triggers the time to start laying. Many species lay that first egg during the first two weeks of April, so the sparrows should share their award with juncos, robins and many other songsters.
In you live near a Bald Eagles’ nest like my friends Sue and Dave, you are acutely aware of exactly when eagles lay eggs, and especially when the young hatch. My friends have recorded those dates for five years; the mean date for first egg laid is March 30. (Not counting the year when the nest blew down and the first egg wasn’t laid until April 16.) This species definitely earns a silver medal.
Ta da! The gold-medal winner for first egg laid goes to a dark horse. Softly sneaking in during the late night and early morning, we’ve hardly noticed it, the Great-horned Owl.
The male and female’s nighttime courting can be heard around Halloween. They claim and refurbish nests in January and lay their first eggs in mid-February. These birds don’t have to wait for spring insect hatchings, but go after rodents, rabbits and other small mammals.
There you have it. The Bird Olympics medal winners. For all of us Olympics junkies, there is no need for a post-Olympics letdown. We can turn off our TVs and enjoy a second round of competition going on in our gardens and parks.
Let the breeding season begin.