Q: Mourning doves appeared in the back yard, and I am wondering if this might be a sign of spring?
— Ron, Dalton, Mass.
A: Trout stocking may well be a sign (nearly 1/2 million rainbow, brown, brook, and tiger this spring alone in Massachusetts). And the arrival of red-wing blackbirds may be another, but seeing your "first" mourning dove, no. This common plump-bodied dove with a long, slender tail and small head is with us all year, being easily found almost anywhere except for deep woods. Some are migratory, while others, even into Canada, will remain in a location year-round. Probably those in much of Vermont and Massachusetts do not move very far from season to season, although the only way to be 100 percent sure is through banding.
This seed eater is one of the most widespread and abundant of all our birds, although it is a game bird. It is hunted primarily for its meat and by some just for sport, with over 20 million shot annually. I find it interesting that it remains so numerous, apparently a factor of multiple broods — upward to six a year in the South.
So named because of its distinctive mournful call, a plaintive cooOOoo-woo-woo-wooooo, it is somewhat similar to a faint barred owl call. Look for their courting (beginning as a sign of spring) both in the air and on the ground. Watch for the male's antics about now. On the ground (or roof top), he will approach a female with his chest puffed out, and while bowing to her, sing a cooing song.
We often see doves , like pigeons, perched on a roof peak. Ours seem to prefer the shed roof and sometimes the deck railing, as they keep an eye out for me to refill the mixed seed feeder.
Q: As early as the first of March I noticed house sparrows entering the nest box in our field. I guess that means no bluebirds nesting here this spring. Is there anything I can do?
— Sandra, Adams, Mass.
A: The house sparrow is one of the few songbirds not protected by law (the Migratory Bird Act) in the United States. The others are the European starling and the pigeon. These are exotic (invasive) species introduced to North America in the 19th century, earlier for the pigeon. Fortunately, the starling is too large to fit into a bluebird box entrance hole, so we have to contend with only the house sparrow to compete with native species. And there is one native, the tree swallow, that will often compete with both the bluebird and the house sparrow. Another might be the house wren.
My suggestion is the remove the nesting material, bag it, and dispose of it with the trash. Repeat this every couple days, but be sure it is a house sparrow nest, and not a native bird. And, to be on the safe side, wear latex gloves and a dust mask.
Q: Is it too early to put out a hummingbird feeder?
A: No, although you will not see a ruby-throated hummingbird until the last of April or the beginning of May, and by then the feeder will most likely need to be cleaned and refilled.
Thom Smith welcomes your questions and comments. Email him at Naturewatch@live.com or write him care of The Berkshire Eagle, 75 S. Church St., Pittsfield, MA 01201.