There are several ways of defining Spring in northeastern Pennsylvania. The easiest and most definitive is, of course, meteorological Spring which falls on March 20th this year. Meteorological Spring is calculated when the Sun passes through the equatorial plane. When going from Winter to Spring, the Sun is moving North, and as soon as the Sun crosses the equator, it is called Spring. I have other definitions of the onset of Spring, as it progresses through a series of events that occur in the lives of our fellow life forms.
The first sign of spring for me as a wildlife biologist is the return of certain migratory birds. In addition to the multitudes of geese returning from their wintering areas in the south, Grackles, beautiful iridescent “black” birds with strange wedge-shaped tails, whose “song” sounds more like a swinging rusty gate, fill the naked trees and posture to each other with wings lifting and falling. Red-wing blackbirds come next. Males have a bright red and yellow patch of color on their wings, and their sound fills the wetlands of our area.
It used to be that robins were a sign of spring, but now they are here year-round. And so, I listen for the sounds of spring at least as much as the sights. They come before green leaves and blossoms and provide proof that warmer times are coming.
Activities of the animals that live here change as spring begins. Skunks are nearing the end of their mating season. Groundhogs, also known as woodchucks have emerged from their winter hibernation and are busy trying to gain weight. Bears become active, and sows take their cubs for their first ventures from the den. It is time to take down the bird feeders! I am starting to hear the tom turkeys declare their superiority and sexiness to the hens. Squirrels run and chase each other, then seem to disappear. When I stop seeing squirrels, that is the beginning of rehabilitators’ Spring. It is time to order formula, open up the dusty boxes of nursery equipment and pull out and test the incubators. Gray squirrels breed twice a year in Pennsylvania, so they must start early. These babies, born blind, naked and helpless in March and April, fall from trees, are pulled from attics, chimneys, equipment engine compartments and a host of other places, and, if needed, are brought to the Pocono Wildlife Rehabilitation and Education Center for care.
Here, they are warmed and provided humidity, and a formula that closely matches squirrel milk. Fed every three hours, night and day, these creatures are totally helpless for weeks. They actually develop very slowly for rodents, not even opening their eyes for four to five weeks. I think this has to do with living in trees. The claws on these guys are sharp and strong at even a week of age, but if they opened their eyes before being well-developed, they’d get into even more trouble than they do!
Other early babies we see at the Wildlife Center are owls, especially Great Horned Owls. These large predators breed during the winter, laying and incubating their eggs during the coldest part of the season to hatch their clutch of two-to-four eggs just when their prey population, mainly rodents, is breeding and their population is peaking. Baby owls are balls of fluff with large staring eyes. Mom and dad are dedicated parents, but there are a few things that can cause these young predators to be brought for care at the PWRC. First, wind storms and crows can knock the owlets from the nest, causing them to tumble to the ground. Many times the nest is too high to return the youngster, it is injured, or it is too young to leave for the parents to feed on the ground. Tree cutting also can cause the entire nest to be brought down. It is never a good idea to raise any wild bird alone because they may become imprinted (not to mention that it is very illegal). Resident raptors act as foster parents at the PWRC to raise orphans of their species to be as successful as possible when released back to the wild.
As Spring progresses, we begin to see the “march of the babies”, including rabbits, ducks, geese, fawns, raccoons and songbirds. We encourage all of you to get outside, stretch your legs, use your senses, enjoy all that northeastern Pennsylvania has to offer, but look and DON’T TOUCH the animals!