Saturday, March 08, 2008

The Robin Is Not a Sign of Spring

"I saw a bunch of robins in the middle of January’s snowstorm. It sure didn’t look like Spring to me!"

"I saw a robin last week. Spring must be coming!"

Old newspapers in small towns used to report the first robin seen in the year. The person who saw the robin was a momentary celebrity. Spring was coming!

Robins are a sign of Spring! Right?

Wrong!!

Robins are not a sign of Spring any more than Punxsutawney Phil, that pampered Pennsylvania groundhog, is a predictor of weather. Here’s the scoop on Phil: if he sees his shadow, it means six more weeks of winter. If he doesn’t see his shadow, it means an early spring. Or maybe it’s the other way around. It hardly matters. As any sensible Vermonter knows, an early spring and six more weeks of winter are the same thing! It’s one of those pieces of folklore that’s just plain wrong.

So why do we cling to the old wives tale that a robin is a sign of spring? Because, as we all know, all robins go south for the winter and return in the early spring. Unfortunately, that is not true.

In part, we are just not paying attention. Maybe during a long winter, we are too housebound, or too bundled against the cold to notice. But if we strap on our snowshoes and wander the garden or roam the woods - or if we just walk to the corner store for a coffee or newspaper - we may hear the rattle of the robin on any day of the year - even a mid-winter day.

The American Robin is a hardy and adaptable bird, comfortable in just about any habitat which North America can provide. Somewhere in his writings, naturalist Pete Dunne tells of reclining on a frozen hillock on the Arctic tundra, sipping a good malt liquor with a friend, and watching robins busy with their business of foraging for their nestlings.

The hardy robin individuals who make the Arctic their breeding ground head south for the winter. But, what is their primary requirement for a wintering stop? Mild temperatures? Sunny days? Gentle ocean breezes? Nope - those may be the requirements for the weakling human snowbirds, but an Arctic robin needs only one thing. Food!

Driving over Black Mountain last week, a flock of robins flew ahead of my car. On either side of the road, fruit hung heavy on the bittersweet, and rose thrips shown red against the snowpack on the hillsides. Other bushes and trees whose names are unknown to me were also full of berries. Robins are omnivorous. They may prefer earthworms pulled from your lawn during spring and summer, or grubs, or beetles, or whatever else is rich in protein. But when the meat goes into the freezer, they happily become vegetarians, albeit sometimes alcoholic vegetarians, since much of the fruit they consume has fermented on the branches.

Of course, the real bar-stool denizens of the bird world are the Cedar Waxwings. They’re famous for their binges, getting falling down drunk on fermented berries. Literally. They will consume so much alcohol laced fruit, that they fall off the branch and stagger about the ground.

But - the robins. Even those winters when they are not reported, some are probably around, hidden in the forests where there is protection from the elements, venturing out only when the days are milder or ground opens up to provide access to some protein. Conveniently, we are sometimes able to see them even through the frosted windows of our warm dens. But they are not telling us that it is spring. Nor is it the case that "they’re not supposed to be here this time of year." I’d prefer to think that robins are some sort of messenger telling us to get up, get out, get going - enjoy what the world has to offer, even if it is cold outside.

True, most robins do migrate south; I’m certain our local nesters do so. And given life in the arctic winter, I am sure that all robins migrate southward, but some stop far short of the South. They seem to know the charm of New England in the winter.

The robins that do migrate to the South in the Fall, return in the Spring. When the ground opens up, large flocks will appear, moving across the soggy lawns and fields in search of food. Those flocks of robins are a sign of Spring, but they are not the folklorish sign that so many think they are.

No, if you are looking for a sure sign of the advent of Spring, there are several that are far more dependable than "the first robin." Look for the wispy columns of wood smoke rising from sugar shacks. Notice when the first village church announces its "Sugar and Snow" supper. Or maybe you noticed earlier this week your crusty and testy neighbors picking their way through the mud ruts on their way to town meeting. Those are sure signs of Spring!

Or perhaps, like the ancients of old, you want an omen from the skies, a bird sent from the gods with the message that "Indeed, Spring is on the way - Persephone returns to bring life and fecundity to the earth."

If that is what you are looking for, then watch for this bird. Its return is regular, dependable, and a predictable sign of Spring. Watch for the Red-winged Blackbird. The first males will return to the river valley during the second week of March. A friend in Guilford sees the first red-winged on March 8, plus or minus a day or two. At town meeting a neighbor hurried up to tell me there were red-wings at his house that morning. With their fresh, bright red epaulets, the male red-wings hurry northward to find and establish a breeding territory. On a broken reed stem, or bare tree branch, they warn off rivals and limber vocal cords for the luring of a mate: "Conk-a-reeeee. Conk-a-reeee."

That is a sure sign that Spring is coming. Other birds will be following along in quick succession as fast, or faster, than the snow melts. Right now it may not look much like Spring is just around the corner. But pay attention. Chickadees and Titmice are beginning to sing, and migrants are returning. After our long winter, I am anxious for bird song, crocus, and good birding.

3 comments:

Greg said...

Excellent and beautifully written post! I too enjoy seeing robins all winter down here in the mid-Atlantic (D.C.) where an abundance of berries keeps 'em fat & sassy through mild and cold periods alike.

Birdfreak said...

We've got the robins all year here, but you really have to hunt for them at times! Most people never get that far into the woods to know that they are around.

The birds sure are getting frisky now this time of year, the nuthatches have gone crazy!

Good birding to you!

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