For the Birds Radio Program: Spring is here—almost

Original Air Date: March 14, 1997

Signs of spring are beginning to appear. (3:36) Date verified.

Audio missing


Now that astronomical spring is almost here, it’s time for us northlanders to finally take down our Christmas wreaths and start preparing for the season of new growth. It’s going to look like winter for at least a while longer, but chickadees are singing their spring song, Downy Woodpeckers are hammering out their love songs, and soon Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers will be tapping for syrup on aspen trees everywhere. The ice sheet on Lake Superior is sloshing back and forth between the south and north shores, depending on which way the wind is blowing. On clear, northwest wind days, we in Duluth can look out and see sparkling blue water and hope for spring, but ironically, any warm southern breeze pushes the ice right back again, holding optimism in check. Kids are dusting off skateboards and checking their bicycle tires, but the snow and ice on roads keep us from putting away our snowshoes and skis just yet.

Birds respond to lengthening days with a surge of restlessness just like humans antsy to get out and rollerblade again. Lakes, rivers, and wetlands are always the best places to look for encouraging signs of spring. The first birds we usually notice moving in are Canada Geese, robins, and Red-winged Blackbirds, which return as patches of water open up in marshes. Robins and red-wings that will depend on insects or worms to feed their young don’t actually require cold-blooded critters to fuel themselves: they can live on seeds and berries for the duration, and often skulk among the cattails picking up bits of food exposed by the melting snow and ice. Ducks return early, too—this year there are already a few popping up on Lake Superior. The first phoebes and sparrows also seem to tum up in marshes. Soon swans will appear—the most magical of spring happenings for me.

In the northwoods, siskins are starting to sing their zippy tunes, and some crossbills are already raising babies. Purple Finches are turning up in some feeders, but on pleasant days, birds at feeders seem to disappear almost completely—as long as the weather is mild, they trust natural food to fuel their investigations of good territories.

Bald Eagles bridge the gap between river and forest. Returning pairs are repairing their nests and then flying to lakes and rivers to feed on fish in the open water and on fish parts spewed up in cracks in breaking ice.

Crows also spend a lot of time picking at the detritus of winter on the ice. If their ice sheet suddenly breaks off and blows out to the middle of the lake, they fly back to land, unlike the human ice fishermen who need to be rescued so often this time of year, putting into some question the concept of bird brains.

Winter will rear its ugly head many times in the coming weeks, but little by little spring will melt the snow away like Data melted the Borg with engine coolant plasma in the movie Star Trek. Spring is coming for sure, and “Resistance is Futile!”