Spring: the season of babies
Land of Four Seasons
April 16, 2022
Now that spring has arrived in the Tehachapi Mountains, we will start seeing babies of all different kinds of animals: rabbits, squirrels, songbirds, raptors, reptiles and amphibians, as well as livestock like cattle, sheep and goats. Spring is known as the season for renewal and rebirth, and it's also the season for birth.
It makes sense for animals to synchronize the arrival of their young with the onset of spring: lots of fresh green plant growth means food is more available and easier to obtain. Grasses and forbs, which are basically all the smaller plants that aren't grasses, like wildflowers, form the basis of most of our food webs.
Our basic food chain is simple: grass-rodent-predator, so when there is abundant grass and other plants, there are more mice and other small creatures. These in turn are preyed upon by larger animals that hunt, like coyotes, bobcats, foxes, birds of prey, etc.
So the flush of new plant growth brings more offspring for prey species, which in turn provides for the young of predators. Baby bobcats and young owlets can't eat grass, but they eat the creatures that do, so in that way, they are as dependent on a good spring crop of new plants as are the mice, voles, rats, rabbits and others that directly consume vegetation.
The return of insects after the cold months of winter means that another major food source is also abundant. Insects provide a nutritious, protein-rich food source for baby songbirds and many other animals.
Some insects, in fact, contain more protein than meat. A study published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition cited research showing that "insects contain values of between 9.96 and 35.2 grams of protein per 100 grams, compared with 16.8 to 20.6 for meat."
The need for protein-dense food to feed rapidly growing baby birds is why you'll see songbirds that are normally seedeaters, like sparrows and finches, catching craneflies and other insects to bring to their nest. Songbird chicks tend to grow and develop very quickly, so that they can fledge and become less vulnerable to predators. To achieve this rapid development, they need high-protein food sources, and insects supply this.
Having lots of babies in the spring provides another advantage for prey species: predators have more choices, reducing the chances of predation on any particular individual.
Toads take this approach, when their tadpoles develop into baby toads. The little toadlets leave their natal pond enmasse, in just a day or a few days, and suddenly there are thousands of baby toads along the shore at once. A hungry predator can only eat so many toads a day and then they're full, giving the remaining toads time to disperse to safety.
If the young toads emerged slowly, small numbers each day over a period of weeks or months, predators would simply stay near the shore and have a daily diet of young toads. Instead, the abundance of toads is overwhelming for a few days and then they disappear.
The same principal is at work for larger creatures like rabbits, squirrels, voles, etc. If there are lots of young animals around at the same time, more are likely to survive long enough to get faster and more elusive. It's not exactly "strength in numbers," more like "they can't eat us all," but it does increase survivability for prey species.
So in addition to the beauty given to us by wildflowers, fruit tree blossoms, new leaves on the deciduous trees, green grass and other pleasures of spring, the presence of baby creatures is another of the joys of spring.
I find things to love about all four seasons in their turn, but it is no secret that spring is my favorite. There is so much life going on, and so many things to see in the natural world. Enjoy it while you can!
Keep enjoying the beauty of life in the Tehachapi Mountains.
Jon Hammond is a fourth generation Kern County resident who has photographed and written about the Tehachapi Mountains for 38 years. He lives on a farm his family started in 1921, and is a speaker of Nuwä, the Tehachapi Indian language. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.