MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) - Spring is arguably the most exciting time for birders, and that also is true in Alabama. Not only does the spring bring dozens of migratory bird species passing through Alabama from winter grounds in South and Central America to summer territories farther north, but it is also breeding season. Who doesn't like to see baby birds?
More than 700 bird species breed in North America, and about 185 of those species regularly breed in Alabama. Of the 450 bird species on record as being found in Alabama, about 41 percent breed in the state, according to the Alabama Ornithological Society checklist of Alabama birds.
Courting, breeding and nesting behavior among these birds can be fascinating, and the variations in such behavior varies in many ways from species to species. But a few generalizations can be made.
For instance, during courtship and breeding it is common for a bird's plumage to change dramatically, usually becoming much more colorful as an aid in attracting a mate. The Little Blue Heron, for instance, develops a cobalt blue bill and facial skin during breeding season (see photo). Cattle Egrets, normally almost all-white, develop a buffy tan cap and chest (see photo) .
The American Goldfinch is an example of a songbird with plumage changes that are stark, especially in the male. In winter the male generally has a greenish back, a mostly white chest, with yellow tinges around its head and on its neck. But by breeding season, the male Goldfinch looks dramatically different, with a dark black cap and wings contrasting with bright neon yellow on its neck, chest and stomach. The female also changes plumage, but less dramatically.
But it isn't just appearance of birds that can change in breeding season. The behavior patterns of many birds change significantly as well.
Birders often find that a particular bird species that is usually reclusive and difficult to spot becomes much easier to locate in breeding season. As birds seek mates, they often find open perches from which to sing, making them almost impossible not to notice. An example common in Alabama is the Red-Winged Blackbird, which perches in the open, displaying the bright red and yellow spots on its wings and spreading its wings as it calls loudly and repeatedly.
Many birds also become more noticeable during nesting season as they defend territory from other birds.
A couple of points. While it is understandable that people want to see eggs and nestlings in the nest, please do so only if it can be done without disturbing the parent birds. Some species, if overly stressed by people trying to view their nests, will simply abandon the nests. If parent birds start to act distressed as you approach a nest, back off, or better yet, only view the nests from a distance with binoculars.
Also note that the Migratory Bird Treaty Act makes it is illegal to destroy, possess or sell bird eggs, nests, parts, and feathers of any bird native to or migrating within North America. Despite the name, please note that native and non-migratory birds are covered as well as those that migrate into the United States.
If you find a baby bird on the ground, what to do depends upon the bird. If it is unfeathered and incapable of walking, hopping or flitting around, then it probably does not yet belong out of the nest. It's OK, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, to return it to its nest if you can do so safely. (What you might have heard about parent birds rejecting nestlings because of human smell on them isn't true, according to the lab website.) However, if the bird is mostly feathered and can hop, walk or flit, it's probably a fledgling and should be left alone.
Spring is arguably the best time to enjoy birds and nature in general in Alabama, so make time to get outdoors.
-- Exploring Wild Alabama, Sunday, May 22, 2 p.m. Part of the Audubon Teachers Nature series at the Oak Mountain Interpretive Center at Oak Mountain State Park. Larry Davenport and Ken Wills are the speakers. No charge for the program, but the usual state park fees apply. Come early, bird the park and tour the nearby Alabama Wildlife Center, which rehabilitates and releases back into the wild injured native Alabama birds. For information: birminghamaudubon.org
-- Make Your Backyard a Birding Paradise, Thursday, May 26, 6 p.m., Lanark in Millbrook. Cost: $5. Ideas on how to make your backyard attractive to Alabama birds. This is part of the Alabama Nature Center's Thursday night nature programs. Other upcoming events include a snake walk, lessons on cooking game, and nature trivia. The center is a project of the Alabama Wildlife Federation. Attendees are invited to bring their own dinner at 5:30 p.m. For information: www.alabamawildlife.org/natureplex/
Ken Hare is a veteran newspaper writer and editor who writes regularly for wsfa.com. Feedback appreciated by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Also email items for Nature/Bird Notes two weeks in advance.