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ALWAYS IN SEASON: Tranquil August brings big changes in the bird world

Mourning dove illustration by Mike Jacobs

August is a month of change.

Yet we think of August as a quiet time of year — as the bridge between July, which is undeniably summer, and September, which is undeniably autumn.

So in the human world, August is a time to relax ahead of what we know is coming. It is time to squeeze the sunshine out of every day.

That is pretty much how it is in the natural world, as well.

For plants, August is the end of the growing season; for birds, it is the end of the reproductive cycle. Young are out of the nests, and there’s a kind of turmoil abroad. Ornithologists call this “zugunruhe,” a German word that means “anxiety to get going.”

Still, the birds take time to relax, as well, or so it seems to me.

Out of hiding

A peculiarity of August is the reappearance of species that had seemed absent during the summer months. They were not gone, of course, but only hiding — first to raise their young and then to change their feathers in their annual molt.

This came to my attention when my wife, Suezette, remarked that she missed the mourning doves, and I agreed. But later in the week, we heard the cooing of the doves once more, a sound that seems plaintive and mournful to us humans and earns the doves the name we’ve given them, not because they are mourning, but because we associate their calls with loss and longing.

Doves are not the only species to reappear. The other day, I told a Minnesota reader not to expect orioles so late in the year. That very day, I encountered a troop of orioles on a high wire. These were obviously a family group: male, female and young of the year.

The orioles nest at our place west of Gilby, N.D., I know, for two reasons. One is that I hear the birds singing in the mornings, though they fall silent in July. The second is that I see their nests hanging from the outermost branches of elm trees after the leaves are gone.

So encountering orioles was not surprising in itself. It was the coincidence that startled me and left me feeling a little abashed. I’d been so sure they were gone, and here was this family mocking me.

More surprising was the appearance of a pair of rose-breasted grosbeaks. These grosbeaks are fairly common in spring, but I always have assumed they were migrants, only stopping to feed.

And this despite the fact that my reference, Robert Stewart’s “Breeding Birds of North Dakota,” declares quite definitively that rose-breasted grosbeaks are “fairly common in wooded stream valleys throughout the Agassiz Lake Plain. ...”

My place is not exactly a wooded stream valley, but it does have mature trees in the tree rows that shelter the buildings.

I’ve just never noticed nesting grosbeaks.

Yet very early one morning, I saw a bulky bird in the very top of a chokecherry tree. It proved to be a female rose-breasted grosbeak obviously enjoying a chokecherry smorgasbord.

Days later, a male appeared.

Then I saw a pair.

So I am left to wonder, could these birds have nested here? Or are they migrants already southward bound? Or are they opportunists who wandered into the yard for the fruit bonanza that it offers?

The dinner bell

The mourning doves offer no such mystery. They nest at our place. No doubt of it. I find their flimsy platforms in the pine trees fairly often. Mourning doves often raise one brood and then re-nest, so I imagined that the birds were re-establishing their pair bond, much like married couples talk over dinner.

As charming as the idea seems to me, it’s probably not why we’re hearing mourning doves cooing once again.

Cooing early in the season comes mostly from unmated males and the primary purpose “seems to be attraction of a mate,” according to “The Birds of North America,” a series of species monographs published by the American Ornithologists Association.

Another purpose is to prompt young birds to respond, so that males can find them to offer food.

That’s probably what’s behind the cooing we heard in this month of changes in the natural world.

Jacobs is a retired publisher of the Herald. Reach him at