Host of voices combines to ring in the spring

Host of voices combines to ring in the spring
John C. Lorson

A mallard drake and hen take a break while “house hunting” on a recent sunny afternoon. The woods and wetlands are presently exploding in a flurry of nesting activity, and the mating calls of everything from red-winged blackbirds to spring peepers are welcoming the spring.


In last week’s column, I pronounced a lowly amphibian, the spring peeper, as my most reliable and favorite harbinger of spring. Some readers joined in full agreement while others offered compelling cases for their own ambassadors of the season.

Turtle, snake and salamander fans all chimed in for their respective animal families, and I’ll admit each bears merit. Each an ectotherm, these creatures require a significant warming of their surroundings to even wake up for the season. Their metabolic rate tracks right along with the thermometer, and the warmer their environment, the more active they become. If they get caught in a cold snap, unless it’s abrupt or exceedingly severe, they’ll simply submerge under the water, slither back into a gap in the rocks or burrow back under the forest duff until the cold period has passed.

One reader and fellow bicycle commuter, Rueben, wrote saying that for him, “The calls of red-winged blackbirds, the warbling of a robin in the yard at dusk and the persistent cries of the peeper are all sounds proving that spring has arrived.”

To be sure, that power trio makes a much stronger case than peepers alone. The “hunker and drowse” approach isn’t an option for an entirely different class of springtime harbingers — the birds. Birds are homeotherms that generate their own body heat just like humans. The colder the outside world becomes, the more energy is required to keep them going. Sure, they can hunker and wait for brief periods, but while doing so, they’re using up valuable stores of energy just to stay warm. Birds need to be right about springtime. Because if they can’t find food and plenty of it, they are doomed.

While at least a few American robins tend to hang around for most of the winter subsisting on berries, fruit and insect larvae, a great number of them flock and head south, returning early in the spring to set up camp before many other birds arrive.

In mid-February a flock of nearly 50 of the birds, likely early migrants, descended upon the still-hanging fruit of a pair of crabapple trees in the bank parking lot across from our office. Over the course of two days, the birds consumed every speck of fruit off those trees. Then in a clear statement of importance of birds in the dispersal of plant seeds, the robins “deposited” the remains in the snow under the maples in front of our building. The sidewalk looked like a scene from a Hollywood horror film.

Of note, the birds were largely silent in their pursuit, except for the occasional “tut-tut-tut.” Silence is a tall order for the robin, which hearkens from a family of strong singers including both the bluebird and wood thrush, the latter of which is for many the very sound of the summertime forest.

Robins are one of the most prolific songsters on the landscape from the onset of spring mating season and on through the second brood at the start of summer. Inspired to sing at the very earliest glimmer of predawn light, if you are awakened by a bird outside your window, there’s often a good chance it’s a robin. And that silhouette on the high branch singing every hymn in the book until sunset is nothing more than a soft blush of memory? Same bird. Same day. Robins don’t get much sleep in the springtime.

The male red-winged blackbird makes its arrival early as well, and while not nearly as melodious as the robin, it’s every bit as vociferous. Staking out a territory and defending it not only audibly but also physically by dive-bombing interlopers, the male red-winged blackbird is a commanding presence in many a marshland, backwater and roadside ditch. The bird may well have a lot to defend as a single male may hold court over five to 15 nesting females within his domain. With a dating ratio like that, it’s certainly understandable why the red-winged blackbird rings in as an early sign of spring.

Whatever sign you recognize as the true arrival of spring, I hope it has arrived. Here’s to hoping you’re able to get out there and enjoy it.

Remember, if you have comments on this column or questions about the natural world, write The Rail Trail Naturalist, P.O. Box 170, Fredericksburg, OH 44627, or email

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