For the Birds Radio Program: March: the Annual Betrayal of the Weather Gods
Now that it’s March, for state ornithological societies spring has officially begun. And sure enough, the first Ruby-throated Hummingbirds are arriving on the Gulf Coast from Mexico, Red-winged Blackbirds are starting to appear in marshes in the central states, and American Robins are singing in many places along the eastern seaboard and starting to reach the Great Lakes area.
March is the month that many people feel betrayed by the weather gods. During a balmy spell, people seem to be waiting for the other shoe to fall, and rather than a simple “Gosh, what a gorgeous day!” people seem to greet one another with news of when the next cold spell is expected to hit. If pleasant weather lasts a few days followed by a blizzard or ice storm, the feeling never seems to be that we had a lovely respite from seasonally wintery weather, but that winter has cruelly dashed our hopes. When we consider that the average temperature in Minneapolis in March is in the 30s, and that means that on average temperatures above freezing are balanced pretty evenly with temperatures below freezing, we can see the logic of bad March weather, but that doesn’t help when we’re yearning for warmth and an end to shoveling.
Birds deal with these ups and downturns of the thermometer much better than we do. Chickadees, weighing a third of an ounce, spend their entire lives outdoors, facing the full brunt of bad weather, but they don’t complain about it, and they don’t hunker down and endure the bad times with grim and sour determination. They won’t get their fill of plump insect larvae until warm weather is more reliable, and when the weather’s bad, they spend most of their day searching for frozen insect eggs and dried up pupae and seeds, but even during a March snow storm chickadees still take time to sing their spring song.
On warmish days, the air is growing alive with bird song—chickadees hey, sweetie-ing, nuthatches shouting, cardinals whistling, juncos trilling, woodpeckers drumming. But birds are feeling pretty happy with the season just because the days are growing longer—for them, warmish days are a bonus, but not the essential and defining element of spring. This morning, March 3, the snow is flying here in Ithaca, but when I went out on my balcony feeling rather betrayed by the snowstorm, the lively sounds of Pine Siskins twittering and making their zippy songs filled the air. Next week, after daylight savings time begins for us ostensibly intelligent humans, when I’m grumbling about how hard it is deal with an alarm clock that is waking me an hour before my body wants to get up, the birds will be rejoicing that each day the sun is waking them up a couple of minutes earlier than the day before. Ever since December 21st, they’ve been noticing days growing longer, and this month daylength increases at its fastest rate. Even on the coldest days, birds have more time to search for food—what’s there to complain about?
For many people, dealing with winter weather is rather like being burdened with a crushing headache that just won’t go away. We never seem to notice the precise moment when it finally dissipates—we just suddenly notice that it’s gone. But with that headache, it can be hard to notice lovely things. Keying in on lengthening days and birds may be like taking a metaphorical aspirin to let go of the seasonal migraine. Even as snow swirls and I head out to grab my shovel, birds are filling the air with song. And in the right frame of mind, birdsong is not just the promise of spring. It’s the whole thing.