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Signs of Spring Update: February 14, 2003

Today's Report Includes:

Valentine's Day Owls
Barred Owl photo by Stephen J. Lang courtesy of Wisconsin Society for Ornithology

Barred Owl photo by Stephen J. Lang courtesy of Wisconsin Society for Ornithology

Our calendars may tell us we're still in the middle of winter, but some birds have a different opinion. Many owls are in the middle of their spring courtship, and some are already sitting on eggs! If an egg freezes, the developing chick inside will die, so mother owls start incubating their eggs the moment they lay them. Father owls normally do the hunting for both of them during this critical time. The mother spends all her time sitting tight..

Why do owls start nesting so early? It's hard to be certain, but the timing does mean that baby owls will be learning to hunt right when there is an abundant supply of inexperienced young mammals to practice on.

Who Gives a Hoot?
Because so many owls are "getting romantic" in February, Valentine's Day is a great time to listen for owls. How would you recognize an owl? Are they the only birds that say "Hoooo Hoooo"? To learn some common owl calls, see

Think about the various owl calls, and how easy they are for human voices to imitate. Then send us your answer to

Challenge Question #5:
"What might be some reasons why owl calls are low-pitched like our voices, rather than high-pitched like so many other birds?"

(To respond to this question, please follow the instructions below.)

Let's Go Owling! and Literature Link to Owl Moon
The book Owl Moon by Jane Yolen is a lovely story about a dad taking his daughter out listening for owls. Journey North writer Laura Erickson once had the great opportunity to meet Jane Yolen. Ms. Yolen said she got the idea for writing Owl Moon from watching her bird-watching husband take their children out. She wrote the book so other children could share in the magic.

So whooo?s invited? You?re invited! Go on your very own owling adventure with tips from ornithologist Laura Erickson and inspiration from Jane Yolen's Owl Moon. (Teachers: Don't miss the tips for a rich experience with the book Owl Moon through our brand new Literature Link/ Reading and Writing Connection.)

News from Walden Pond and Reminder: Send Ice-Out Contest Predictions
Today (February 14) marks the deadline for entering your prediction for ice-out at Walden Pond. Even if you miss today's deadline, you can still enter your guesses for the remaining five ice-out observation posts! Meanwhile, how does the news from Walden fit your predictions? On February 8, Michelle Dumas of Walden Pond State Reservation gave us the following update. What's your prediction for ice-out 2003?

Today is February 8, 2003, and we just had another snow storm...this one dropped 12 inches of snow on Walden. This brings our snow on the ground total to about 24 inches. The temps have been in the 20's, with some very windy days. Our visitors have been cross-country skiing and snow shoeing daily. The ice fishermen report ice thickness ranging from 16 to 18 inches!!!! Thicknesses of this type were more common in Henry Thoreau's time. One of the coves at the park is named Ice Fort Cove, because in the 1800's people would harvest the ice from this section of the pond. In my 16 years at Walden, 13 inches is the most ever measured.

Michelle Dumas
Asst. Park Director
Walden Pond State Reservation

To report YOUR predictions see

Current Happenings: Cold, Slow Week
Report Your SightingsIt's been a cold week in many places, so we haven't heard about many signs of spring since last Friday. Linda Altman of the Mine Valley School in Raleigh, North Carolina, reported on February 7, "Daffodils are poking through and have buds. No tulips yet. Giant Hyacinth are poking through - no buds yet." Stuart Claire in Glengarry, West Virginia, reports, "Mockingbirds singing. One came to feeder & ate suet--first time EVER in many years of feeding winter birds. Pair of bluebirds already visiting nesting box." This reminds us that February is a great month to build new birdhouses and clean out old ones.

Remember to share your sightings of first frogs, earthworms, red-winged blackbirds, barn swallows, emerging leaves, flowing sap, melting ice and other spring events. To report any interesting signs of spring, just click on the owl icon at the top of any Journey North page.

Discussion of Challenge Question #4
Last time we asked "Where on a bird's body is it most likely to get mosquito bites?"

Kasey in Ms. Deede's class notes, "Mosquitos can bite birds around their heads where the feathers are very thin. Another place where mosquitos can bite birds is under their wings where skin may show." Dan F. in Ms. Glessner-Fines's class wrote, "They bite under the wing (like a human's armpit)."

These students both realize that the "wingpit" area is warm and has very thin feathers--perfect for mosquitoes. But mosquitoes do have some problems getting there because the wings themselves block the way. Soaring birds such as hawks, vultures, and storks probably don't get too many mosquito bites while flying high in the air, simply because mosquitoes tend to spend most of their life closer to the ground. But when vultures or cormorants sit with their wings spread to dry their feathers, mosquitoes may well gather by their wingpits!

Kasey's suggestion about mosquitoes biting around the head was a very good one. Birds usually get most mosquito bites on their heads. That happens for several reasons:

  • Feathers on a bird's head are short, and so easy for a mosquito to get through.
  • A bird's head is very hot, and not as well insulated as places on its body with thicker feathers, so the head is the easiest place for a mosquito to sense warmth.
  • Mosquitoes respond to carbon dioxide, which birds breathe out through their mouth and nostrils.
  • Birds can preen most of their bodies with their beaks, but they simply can't do that on their heads.

How to Respond to Today's Challenge Questions:

IMPORTANT: Answer only ONE question in each e-mail message.

1. Address an e-mail message to:
2. In the Subject Line of your message write: Challenge Question #5
3. In the body of your message, give your answer to ONE of the questions above.

The Next Signs of Spring Update Will Be Posted on February 21, 2003.

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