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March 20, 2013

Watching Wildlife in Spring

A time of courting, mating, building, laying, gathering... whew!

The Humane Society of the United States

  • Come spring, male woodchucks emerge first to look for a mate. iStockphoto.com

  • Nothing greets the arrival of spring more melodiously than a chorus of spring peepers do. iStockphoto.com

  • Surviving winter as an adult, the mourning cloak butterfly can be found throughout North America. iStockphoto.com

  • If you live up north and the yellow-bellied sapsuckers have arrived, it’s spring. John Harrison

  • Aptly named, the ruby-throated humming bird is truly a jewel. John Harrison

Spring is a season of natural drama: awakenings, departures and arrivals, territorial disputes, courtship songs and displays, nest building, egg laying, and frenzied food gathering.

The fever-pitch celebration of life makes spring a wonderful time for watching wildlife.

Wildlife awakenings

  • Woodchucks begin awakening from hibernation in late February or early March. Males emerge first, wandering from den to den in search of females. Females chase off most suitors and raise their young on their own.
  • Overwintering insects such as lady bird beetles have been sheltering in the soil, under leaves, rocks, or logs, or inside plant stems. Mourning cloak butterflies are among spring’s first butterflies, because they winter as adults rather than larvae, emerging from tree cavities when temperatures go above freezing.
  • Spring peepers are astonishingly loud sentinels of spring, considering the lima-bean-sized bodies of these tiny woodland frogs. Once temperatures go above freezing, males gather in small pools of water and sing choruses to attract females.

Wildlife departures and arrivals

  • Juncos and white-throated sparrows throughout much of the U.S. are busy fattening up for their spring migration north. They migrate at night, when the air is calmer, making flight less taxing.
  • Yellow-bellied sapsuckers are among the first migratory birds seen in northern states in spring. When the tree sap they feed upon begins to run, they tap rings of holes in the trunks and high limbs soft-barked trees, causing the nutritious sap to flow out. The sap attracts and captures tiny insects, adding to the meal. In early spring when other foods are still scarce, the sapsucker’s sap wells help support 35 other bird species.
  • Ruby-throated hummingbirds rely on the yellow-bellied sapsuckers’ sap wells while waiting for nector from flowers to become available and appear to help the sapsuckers defend their sap wells against other birds. Since the ruby-throat’s appetite is small, their presence is a benefit to the sapsuckers. 
  • Monarch butterflies begin their incredible migration from Mexico in March. Their progression northward coincides with the blooming of milkweed, which they find using chemical receptors on their antennae and legs. They lay eggs on the leaves of milkweed plants, which become food for the hatching larvae.

Territories, courtship, and nest-building

  • American robins head northward when the “vertical migration” of their favorite food--earthworms—begins. (After wintering in the soil below the frost line, earthworms tunnel to the surface just in time to feed the arriving hungry robins.) A male robin heard singing all day in one place is establishing his territory.
  • American woodcock males (also called “timberdoodles”) perform an amazing skydance as a courtship display. Before dawn and dusk in early spring, the male zooms skyward, spiraling higher and higher. At the peak of the climb, he chirps while flying in a circle; then he plummets to the ground before repeating the dance. 
  • Ruby-throated hummingbirds gather soft dandelion down, strong and stretchy spider silk, and bits of leaves and lichen as camouflage for their nests. Within 5-6 days, the tiny nest is ready for two jellybean-sized eggs. The young hatch after about 2 weeks and fledge in about 20 more days.. 

Suggestions for wildlife watching

  • Keep your binos handy by the door. Record your wildlife observations in a daily calendar or journal.
  • Start a sketchbook of interesting sightings.
  • Keep a camera handy for those unexpected moments.
  • Participate in a citizen science program, such as NestWatch.

More Resources for Watching Wildlife»

Create a Humane Backyard

A place that offers food, shelter, water, refuge from toxic sprays, and safety from mowers—it’s what every creature wants, right? They want a Humane Backyard. By making simple changes, you can create that haven of comfort and security for local wildlife. And you can do it anywhere: in the city, suburbs, or country. So look around--at your backyard, balcony, or the park down the street—then let us teach you how to make your own Humane Backyard. Once you’ve learned how, take our Humane Backyard pledge.

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