Thursday, February 14, 2013

Valentine’s Day is For the Birds

Though today is Valentine’s Day, many of the birds in and around my yard have been showing “romantic” behavior for weeks, mostly in forming and re-forming pair bonds in preparation for spring breeding.

Breeding behavior? In February? With two and three feet of snow on the ground, single-digit temperatures, and generally wintry conditions?

Yes. The birds are responding to the changes in the hours of daylight. As the days grow longer (have you noticed all of a sudden that it’s light at 6:00 am now?), their bodies and behaviors begin to prepare for breeding. In my own yard and neighborhood I’ve seen many birds getting ready for the breeding season.

Last week I was thrilled to see a pair of Red-tailed Hawks dance across the sky in a courtship flight display. Essay and photos here:

The pair of White-breasted Nuthatches that visit my feeder every day are very intensely focused on each other. She waits on a certain branch in the big oak tree behind the hedgerow, poking around a bit in the crevices and cracks. He zips to the feeders to get a seed or a bit of suet, which he brings back to her and transfers carefully to her bill. This happens repeatedly. They come to the feeders together, too, tooting their funny little calls and following each other around and around the suet tree.

The Northern Cardinals, which have formed a loose flock in the yard this winter (see photos here are beginning to squabble and re-establish their pairs. Believe it or not, I can tell them apart, and I can see that the oldest pair once again is dominating the flock and re-claiming the area immediately around the deck and hedgerow as their territory.

Oh, the Blue Jays. Loud, noisy, aggressive, right? But watch them carefully as they form their bonds. Watch the male choose a seed. (No, not that one. This one. Oh, here’s a better one. Oh, wait, this one is bigger.) See the female in the nearby wisteria, watching with interest, sleek and blue and silver. The male floats silently to where she waits. They bob to each other, and he places the seed very carefully in her bill. Beeble beeble, he calls softly. Here is a seed for you. They fly off together.


Research always brings serendipitous results. As I was looking up a bit of historical information for today's post on the history of Valentine’s Day (read it here:, I came across this fascinating item in the Catholic Encyclopedia, which affirms the observations I noted above:

The popular customs associated with Saint Valentine’s Day undoubtedly had their origin in a conventional belief generally received in England and France during the Middle Ages, that on 14 February, i.e. half way through the second month of the year, the birds began to pair. Thus in Chaucer’s Parliament of Foules we read:

For this was sent on Seynt Valentyne’s day
Whan every foul cometh ther to choose his mate.

For this reason the day was looked upon as specially consecrated to lovers and as a proper occasion for writing love letters and sending lovers’ tokens. Both the French and English literatures of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries contain allusions to the practice. Perhaps the earliest to be found is in the 34th and 35th Ballades of the bilingual poet, John Gower, written in French; but Lydgate and Clauvowe supply other examples. Those who chose each other under these circumstances seem to have been called by each other their Valentines. In the Paston Letters, Dame Elizabeth Brews writes thus about a match she hopes to make for her daughter (we modernize the spelling), addressing the favoured suitor:

And, cousin mine, upon Monday is Saint Valentine’s Day and every bird chooses himself a mate, and if it like you to come on Thursday night, and make provision that you may abide till then, I trust to God that ye shall speak to my husband and I shall pray that we may bring the matter to a conclusion.

Shortly after the young lady herself wrote a letter to the same man addressing it “Unto my rightwell beloved Valentine, John Paston Esquire”. The custom of choosing and sending valentines has of late years fallen into comparative desuetude. [1917 edition]


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