Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

April 6, 2009

Seeing Red Hare and There

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 4:02 pm

As I am writing this installment, I’m looking out over the computer screen and out through the front window. There is a gentle snowfall descending from the sky. Last night we got a few inches of the heavy white stuff  and it’s not showing any signs of letting up as the day gets older. It is a bit mind-numbing to see that it’s April 6 according to the inside ‘fridge calander but only March 6 according to the real visual record. Although there is nothing truly shocking going on here, the weather talk of the day will be of the “can you believe it” nature. This type of weather is par for the course – it’s just that we are the ones with the short term memories.  In a way this is good, because it creates in us a “newness” of being in a place where every day is different from the next. Dogs think this way, so why can’t we?

I bring this memory stuff up, of course, because I want to try your memory for just a moment. I’d like to cover a few subjects that I’ve touched on before. My intent is not to numb your senses, but simply to get you to “fetch” your senses back.

The picture of the Red-winged Blackbird at the head of this piece is brand new, but the subject is brand old. These stunning black and red dynamos are hard to ignore this time of year. Every time they belt out an “Oaka-leee-a” chorus is cause for me to stop and admire the scene. Now, I haven’t forgotten that I’ve called this to your attention on more than one prior occasion but I do so only because I think it’s worth it.  There is something new here as well.

Male Red-winged Blackbirds have been facing off since mid February. They have been actively staking out wetland territories in anticipation of the day when the females come home (here’s a female from last year). Well, the new “news” is that the girls have finally arrived at the Erie shore! I saw my first one on Saturday and yesterday the marsh world was transformed with the beguiling charms of dozens of females. Needless to say, the male birds are well aware of what’s going on and they are pumped.

All the guys are going about their business with a renewed vigor. Their calling rates have increased along with the intensity of their displays. The male bird pictured above is completing his so-called  “song spread” display in which the Okalee vocalization is accompanied by a flaring of the wings and tail and a raising of those red epaulets. That shade of red, called Phoenician Red by the way,  is so-termed because of it’s resemblance to the red shellfish dyestuff once traded to the Greeks by the Phonys.  In-between these typical displays, however, the males are also doing a lot of strutting. This behaviour is often overlooked because it is performed in silence.

A strutting blackbird exhibits all the pomposity of a third-world general reviewing his troops (see the photos below). Head up and beak pointed skyward, this general is pictured as he patrolled his section of the boardwalk at Lake Erie Metropark. Though his kingdom is but a small piece of wet ground, he guards it as if it were a palace placed upon a lofty mountain (see a movie here). Unlike puppet generals, these birds have the ability to hide their scarlet epaulets if they so choose. Through a series of controlled skin muscle moves – similar to those which create goosebumps in humans – the males actually raise up their epaulets above the covering layer of black feathers so that they are more than obvious. So, even in the strutting pose, the red shoulder is deliberately on exhibit. After the breeding season, these shoulder pads will be covered for the most part.

Red-wing Blackbirds are polygynous, which means they keep a harem of multiple females. The males have to actively defend a territory of 150 to 2,000 meters or more in order to insure proper nesting conditions for thier assembled mates. Average males have 5 females in their families while super males have been known to collect 15 or more! In practise, even though the females are not all true to their mates and will occassionally slip away for some action with the mailman, this behavior provides a pretty good form of gene insurance.

The other old subject that I’d like to bring up again has to do with the frisky behavior of spring Cottontail Rabbits. Not that they really need to, but rabbits perform a sort of pre-mating dance in order to get their hormones going. The routine consists of a series of playful face-offs, dashes, paw slapping, and some vertical jumps. Male rabbits will join in vicious kickboxing routines, but bunnies of the opposite sex become downright giddy with each other.

On the last day of March – the real March – I caught a couple of rabbits so engaged in the back yard (see movie here). While the Red-wing performance has a well choreographed sound track, the bunny dance is a silent routine. I decided to give the short sequence a soundtrack, so be forewarned. Turn the sound all the way down if you want your experience to be a strictly scientific observation session, but keep it up if you want to catch a silly thought and forget this crummy weather for a moment. Fetch!


  1. Is it short memory or just plain denial?
    Cute bunnies. Love the soundtrack.

    Comment by Barefootheart — April 7, 2009 @ 3:51 am

  2. […] Birdgirl is sitting watching snowflakes fall, waiting for the mothing season to get underway. At Naturespeak, Gerry is looking out over his computer screen at a gentle snowfall descending from the sky. […]

    Pingback by Pink Moon « Willow House Chronicles — April 10, 2009 @ 6:53 am

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