Humans aren't the only ones who court each other during this time of year! Here are highlights of some forest species that breed in late winter. You might observe these birds or mammals courting in your backyard or out in Penn’s woods.
Many species breed multiple times a year, taking advantage of plentiful resources, or some breed only once, ensuring young are mature by next winter.
Gray squirrels breed in late winter to early spring, and often have another litter later in the summer. Males compete for females’ attention, and females can mate with multiple males.
Young can be born in late February through April. In the western and southern parts of Pennsylvania, you might see fox squirrels, whose mating season is in January. Kits are born in late February or early March.
Eastern cottontail rabbit
The eastern cottontail rabbit is also feeling amorous this time of year. Cottontails start breeding in February or March and continue to September. They are promiscuous, meaning males and females have many mates.
Litters are born March through September, with an average of five young. Rabbits born in early spring can mate by late summer of the same year.
The snowshoe hare, cottontails’ cousin of the north woods, begins courtship in early March. Males use their hind feet to fight rivals for females.
Great horned owls
Great horned owls have the earliest breeding season of all the owls in Pennsylvania. They mate as early as December or January, staking out breeding territory by hooting to each other. Great horned owls are believed to mate for life.
Nests are made of repurposed crow, heron, or hawk nests, or in tree cavities. The mated pair works together to clean out old nest material. The female then lines it with her feathers before she lays two to three eggs in February.
Another early breeder and species that mates for life is the bald eagle. Nesting and egg laying occurs in February, and nestlings hatch in mid-April to mid-May.
Eagles often return to the same nest site year after year, which may cover an area greater than one square mile and include more than one nest.
Courtship begins in the winter and is important for building bonds between pairs. This can include sharing nest-building duties as well as dramatic, high-speed acrobatics while twirling with locked talons.
Watch a new eagle family on Pennsylvania Game Commission’s Farm Country Eagle Cam site. The Game Commission’s Hanover Bald Eagle Cam is also up and running as well as the Audubon Society of Western PA’s Hays Bald Eagle Cam in Pittsburgh. Currently, all three nests have one to two eggs.
Speculation is beginning on which the the Peregrine Falcons will pair off for this year’s mating season at the nest on the 15th Floor of the Rachel Carson Building in Harrisburg, headquarters to DEP and DCNR. Once they figure it out, eggs should be coming along sometime from mid- to late March.