T. S. Eliot wrote in The Wasteland, that “April is the cruellest month, breeding/ Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing/ Memory and desire, stirring/ Dull roots with spring rain.”
Obviously, never having visited Michigan (he was born and raised in St. Louis, MO) he continues, “Winter kept us warm, covering/ Earth in forgetful snow, feeding/ A little life with dried tubers.” He’s been dead for 50 years and didn’t have to contend with this year’s February (see last month’s post).
That’s all behind us now, at least in this corner of Michigan and much of the Midwest. Plants are beginning to sprout, maple syrup season is over, and even the occasional insect can be spotted.
Usually people in Michigan identify the American robin (turdus migratorius–what an unfortunate appellation)
with the arrival of spring. Not only does Michigan lose points for making our state bird one that Wisconsin and Connecticut also claim (the northern cardinal appears to be the most popular state bird), but not all robins leave the state in the fall. Some stay around, somehow managing to find food through the winter.
There has been a movement over the last few decades to make the Kirtland’s Warbler (Setophaga kirtlandii), a bird that only breeds in northern lower Michigan, the state bird, but too many people complain that politicians ought to find better things to do with their time than designate state animals, rocks, and books.
So, for now, we’re stuck with the ordinary robin.
For me, though, the harbinger of spring is the red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus). Yes, it’s a common enough sight and sound in wetlands (even saltwater marshes) around the country, but they aren’t found in Michigan in winter.
Unlike the lazy robin, they hightail it south for open water and abundant food. Well, not too far south, some are found year round in Ohio.
Some of the more sophisticated birds like to winter in Mexico. The ones who can afford it, do, I suppose.
If you’re not sure what one looks like, all you need to do to spot the male is to look for a black bird, not quite as large as a blue jay, but certainly larger than a sparrow. OK, I guess they are robin-sized.
But this isn’t one:
This bastard The starling isn’t even native to North America, thanks to a Shakespeare lover it was introduced in Central Park in New York in the 19th century and now they gobble up native birds’ food.
This black bird is also not red-winged, but it is native:
The common grackle is larger than the red-winged blackbird and is widespread as well.
The red-winged blackbird is as it’s name claims, a black bird with a scarlet and yellow shoulder patch on it’s wings. That’s the male, anyway. The female is brown and has field markings similar to a song sparrow.
Besides the instant sunshine the bird brings with its appearance, is the varied musical call the male sings.
Watch this beautifully shot short video by Lang Elliot:
I don’t know about you, but that bird’s call is magical to me and instantly brings spring to mind.
Lastly, spring is also here when the ground is brown, bare, and soggy, yet it smells of “the dearest freshness deep down things” to quote my favorite Jesuit poet. There’s that earthy smell that is heaved into my nostrils. And it’s not a bad smell at all.
I can throw the windows open, blow out winter’s dust, and thrill to the call of boy blackbirds and smell the fecund earth.
What’s spring like in your neighborhood?