Virginia Nature Journal for April

Algernon Swinburne

Smells arouse old memories, good and bad. The coconut bouquet of prickly gorse bushes evokes memories of ranks of jasmine blossom on the chalky downs of the Isle of Wight where I was born and Algy Swinburne grew up. Oh, to be in England, now that April’s there (Robert Browning). But here in Tidewater Virginia, the scent of pine resin at this season conveys no particular emotion for me, nor can it trigger flashbacks.

Crabapple tree blooming in April
Crabapple tree blooming in April

I read that memory is less aroused by sound than by smell which owes its potency to a handshake between our olfactory bulbs and the hippocampus. But when I hear the lazy phrases of a blackbird, my mind is transported to a remembered English garden where one sang every afternoon announcing its territory from a perch in apple blossom. But here, where brown thrashers, wood thrushes and mocking birds are better musicians, the chorus of woodland songsters never evokes the same emotion, perhaps because some neural networks close after childhood.

And yet less emotion does not mean less care for the birds that choose to make a home in our yard. In a landscape where native plants of Virginia are retreating before the advance of so many inedible aliens, they need us when food supplies reach a nadir. The bird feeder was not full for very long and never empty during the winter. Long before our neighborhood birds started looking for nesting sites I made a batch of boxes for them, one for every acre. They are luxury condos made of durable white cedar with green shingle roofs and a critter-guard against snakes, raccoons and squirrels.

WelcomeEggs_smallThe boxes were designed for bluebirds, which are surely in the top ten for popularity. Cavity nesters depend on these artificial homes because cautious park officers and yard owners fell dead trees which might have offered them a home. Apart from untold numbers of nest-boxes in gardens, there are 230 boxes around public trails and golf courses in James City and York counties that are monitored weekly by local naturalists. It is exciting to find a clutch of 4 or 5 bluebird eggs (sky blue, of course), and experts assure us that a brief inspection does not affect breeding success.

The program has reversed the steady decline in their population, and now there are more bluebirds in the area than at any time in living memory. Over 700 of them fledged from these boxes alone last year. The Virginia Bluebird Society collects breeding data from across the state, and at summer’s end we will know what impact the hard winter had on their population.

Chickadee nesting in bluebird box
Chickadee nesting in bluebird box

There were bluebirds in our yard until the deep freeze started in February, but we saw few afterwards. There are reports of birds found dead in nest-boxes where they were roosting. Drinking water was frozen for several weeks, and there were few berries or other natural foods at the end of winter. Perhaps the hard weather explains why a chickadee took up residence in one of our bluebird boxes, a tufted titmouse in another, and Carolina wren is building a nest in a third. One box is vacant where a pair of bluebirds raised two broods last year.

Bluebird laying recordBluebirds are nesting elsewhere, but they started late this year, although no later than in the past two years. Our records for 2012-15 suggest their breeding schedule is flexible, so that hungry fledglings are not hatched before insects are abundant again. In the warm spring of 2012, the first eggs were laid three weeks early.

The great horned owls breeding on Jamestown Island don’t have to be respecters of temperature and weather because their prey is ever present. They were sitting on eggs in January, and their owlets were almost ready to fly when the bluebirds were starting to gather straw and down to line their nests.

Red-shouldered hawk on nest
Red-shouldered hawk on nest

Besides the vagaries of weather, bluebirds face the daily challenge of evading predators. They have little to fear from nocturnal species like owls, but a pair of red-shouldered hawks has taken up residence in our woodlot, and I guess they have chicks sitting on the untidy matt of sticks in the fork of a loblolly pine. Their breeding schedule coincides with the re-appearance of frogs and reptiles and when baby rodents set foot out of the nest and naïve baby birds flutter out of theirs. We hear the hawks screaming kee-rah all day long to scare birds out of cover or before taking a dive at them on the bird feeder. I feel no special sympathy for an English sparrow in yellow talons, but there would be a rush of emotion if I noticed a splash of blue on prey feathers.

Next Post: Cuisine for Carnivores


By Roger Gosden

A British and American scientist specializing in reproduction & embryology whose career spanned from Cambridge to Cornell's Weill Medical College in NYC. He married Lucinda Veeck, the embryologist for the first successful IVF team in America. They retired to Virginia, where he became a master naturalist and writer affiliated with William & Mary.

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