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I don’t normally let myself fall into the “spring is here” trap that can prolong winter for weeks on end, but I was quite surprised recently to see a bluebird sitting on my rail fence. For those who keep such records, it was March 5, rather early for bluebirds but I guess that is up to them, not us!
Of course, that little event got me looking at other signs of spring and, naturally, I found plenty. A few hours after the bluebird disappeared a squadron of robins bobbed across the lawn, none particularly bright-colored especially active, but there they were, posing like statues on the brown grass, acting as if they’d arrived on the wrong day for an important meeting.
Patches of open ground here and there suggest that it won’t be long before we have to sharpen the lawnmower blades, and there were several places in the woods where the first tentative daffodil leaves were poking out of the frosty ground.
The one sign of spring that does it for me is the noticeable change in temperature, that warm breeze that, while too cool for most folks, tells me winter only lingers, but does not rule. At midday I can sit outdoors in a flannel shirt and finish a cup of tea before I get my first chill, and to me that’s as good a sign as any that balmier days are upon us.
As in fall, the sudden arrival of thousands of blackbirds, grackles and redwings signals the change of seasons. Just a few days ago the tree line at the edge of my field was black with these noisy birds, which flew in one dark mass from one place to another in search of who knows what; there’s not a bug in sight at the moment, and what fuels these massed cacklers is a mystery.
One such group of blackbirds crossed the road in front of me last week and the undulating stream of birds stretched from horizon to horizon. There must have been 100,000 of them, all headed generally north and calling to each other at the top of their lungs. I could hear them through closed windows, and the flock remained in sight for miles after it passed.
I’m not sure what the ornithological types make of these spring and fall blackbird migrations, but you can’t discount them as a sign of the changing seasons. Fortunately, this time they’re ushering us into spring, and no one can complain about that!
It may be a tad early for them, but soon we’ll hear the trill of spring peepers, that peculiar, high-pitched sound that emanates from wet fields, swamps and culvert crossings almost as soon as the last of the snow has melted. I have heard them as early as March 20 (almost the first day of spring) when there was still some snow on the ground, but normally they wait till mid-April before they make their presence known.
Also one of the certain sounds of warmer times is the bizarre, insect-like call of the male woodcock as it sits in a woodland opening, usually at the edge of a field or pasture, uttering its monotone, cicada-like note in hopes of attracting a mate. To add to the show, the male will suddenly fly upwards several hundred feet, squealing and twittering all the way, then coming down to land in the same spot to repeat the process. On a good night it’s possible to hear half a dozen woodcock performing, and what better way to mark the coming of spring? It’s likely that you won’t see or hear these furtive, long-billed birds again till fall, when you may happen to flush one hiding in a thicket of alders and birches.
There are at least two more signs of spring that are difficult to miss. One is the sudden appearance of raccoons after their long winter’s nap. It’s a shame that so many of these ring-tailed bandits fail to survive their mid-March dash across country roads. Those that do make it are sure to end up on someone’s back porch in hopes of finishing off the last of the pet food, or perhaps decide to knock over a loaded trash can so they can partake of last night’s leftover lasagna dinner.
One of the most common signs of spring is not one you can see or hear, but there’s no doubt that it’s there. Drive along any country road this month and you’re likely to detect the very strong odor of skunk, another animal that spends a good part of the winter in a cozy den. In March, skunks begin to wander the countryside in search of food and mates, and it is thought that the release of their notorious scent helps them find what they are looking for.
Skunks, too, are fond of back yard fare, so keep your dog and cat dishes indoors. Skunks are generally harmless to humans (except when challenged, and few humans win that battle!), but they do have a bad habit of digging holes in suburban lawns as they work to uncover grubs, moles, mice and other skunk-sized snacks.
One year, while living in Newport off the Williams Road near Nokomis pond, I had the luxury of observing a female skunk and her four skunklets (kits, actually) as they came out of the woods behind the house each evening to feed on spring grubs. Curious to know just how much work they could do overnight, I got up at dawn one morning and went out to count the holes in the lawn. Somewhere around 240 I gave up, and I hadn’t even touched the front yard! I like skunks, I don’t much like grubs and I knew that the lawn would recover in time, so I didn’t do as my neighbor did and call in an exterminator. Instead, I just let nature take its course. Eventually, the holes, the grubs and the skunks disappeared, and by mid-summer the lawn looked fine.
I once made good money trapping skunks for their hides (which brought about $3 when minimum wage was $1), and if this economy gets any worse I may go back into the trapping trade, but for now I’ll just mark their odious appearance as one of the many other signs that tell us spring is just around the corner.
Despite the signs, I won’t take a bet that we have seen the last of winter. It’s just too early for that!
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