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Buds, Birds: What Are The True Harbingers of Spring?

While many believe the robin to be a sign of spring's arrival, there are several other birds that coincide with the change of season.
While many believe the robin to be a sign of spring's arrival, there are several other birds that coincide with the change of season. Video Credit: William Haffey
Grackles can easily eat all the bird seed in a feeder. Photo Credit: William Haffey
Contrary to popular belief, the American Robin is not a good indicator of spring. Photo Credit: William Haffey
A pair of Canada Geese. Photo Credit: William Haffey
Male House Finches sing incessantly throughout the early spring. Photo Credit: William Haffey

As spring unfolds, there are many signs that warm days are right around the corner. Sports fans notice shifting coverage from basketball to baseball, while gardeners take notice of developing buds and blooming crocuses. Predictably, birdwatchers are no different in their ability to mark this time of year, as certain cues from the surrounding birdlife are often surprisingly accurate barometers for this season of change.

While colloquial wisdom marks spring’s beginning with the arrival of the first American Robins, most birdwatchers recognize that such a claim as rather inaccurate. One can find robins in the tristate area throughout the winter, traveling in loose flocks searching for berry-bearing trees and bushes. Since robins cannot truly be considered harbingers of spring, local birdwatchers have noticed other species to be a more authentic representation of the season.

In actuality, the arrival of blackbirds and grackles often marks the end of winter. These species spend most of the winter wandering open agricultural and coastal areas in large flocks, slowly dispersing across their breading range as the days grow longer. The first crass, yet surprisingly musical, song of a Red-winged Blackbird in local marshes is a sure sign that the breeding season will soon be here. 

Those who feed birds often dread the return of the loud grackles that gobble up a birdfeeder’s worth of food in an hour. Much like the grackles, Canada Geese spend the winter in large flocks, and become territorial as spring approaches. Such a phenomenon is noticeable along Westchester's Bronx River Parkway. Large roving flocks of geese occupy the green space along the river throughout the winter, but as soon as the days become long enough, males and females break off to establish and defend a territory. 

Even casual birdwatchers notice the gradually increasing birdsong at daybreak, where the combination of hormones and environmental cues prompt birds to sing earlier and more frequent. Though palling in comparison to the dawn choruses of May, a single Brown Thrasher or House Finch singing on a chilly morning is an undeniable prelude to the concert to come. No matter how one marks the transition from winter to spring, the yearly awakening of local birdlife is something to both anticipate and enjoy each year.

William Haffey is currently a seminarian for the Diocese of Bridgeport, and has a background in avian ecology and has birded extensively in the United States and Latin America.

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