The Calculus of Spring
Song of the American Robin
At a certain moment in March, spring arrives. Few events in life are so satisfyingly mathematical.
At 7:01 A.M. EDT on March 20, 2013, it was winter. At 7:02, it was spring.
It's the moment at which the days became longer than the nights.
That's the cosmic view, true for the entire Northern Hemisphere. But the local calculus of spring depends on where you are, on the weather, and even on who you are. For some, spring begins when the seed catalogs land in the mailbox, or when the first crocus buds emerge from the snow. For my husband it's when he retires the snow shovel to the back of the garage.
By my reckoning as an Iowan, spring begins with the first song of an American robin. Not the first sight of a robin, mind you. The mere presence of robins is not sufficient, because a few stay around all winter. Most skulk in the woods, where they stay out of view and live on wild fruits.
In late winter they sometimes venture into town to raid hawthorns and other berry-giving trees, and the local newspaper may proclaim on the front page, "They're back!" But these birds are probably not the vanguard of the robin migration. They're the ones who have wintered here. They are not singing. They're just enduring.
The robin in winter
Of course, most robins leave the north before winter sets in. They crowd into the southern US and Central America, where it's warm and there's more food. In the north, the first returning robins sometimes look rather miserable during late snowstorms. Robins who've enjoyed an easy winter in the south don't seem to like that sort of weather.
Until the soil warms to 36 degrees, earthworms don't move around in the ground and poke up out of it to leave their castings. So the robins can't find them.
Wild berries and fruits are at their lowest ebb, too, picked over by the wintering birds. Although robins will accept blueberries, chopped apples, or soaked raisins at bird feeders, most people who feed birds provide only seeds. And robins don't really regard seeds as food. No wonder they aren't singing.
But then, robins usually don't sing much in wintertime even if they do have enough to eat. When my father lived in southern Texas, he called one morning in January to say there were 50 robins on his front lawn. "You'll be seeing them soon," he told me. "They're on their way."
"Their music must be absolutely deafening," I remarked.
But my father said that the robins weren't singing. Now and then one of them said "Tuck-tuck," but that was about it. In fact, my father couldn't remember when he had last heard a robin sing. I wouldn't have believed him, if I hadn't known what a keen observer he was.
Robins in the big country
The next January, my husband and I camped at Brazos Bend State Park, near Houston. The park swarmed with American robins. Robins running on the ground and on top of picnic benches. Robins gazing at us through Spanish moss that hung from oak trees and peering us from under parked campers. Robins perched on rocks and signs and tent poles. We tried to estimate how many there were in the 5000-acre park and came up with five million robins. I tried to extrapolate to the whole of Texas and came up with my head swimming. And all those robins were silent as monks.
Then I got it. A male robin's song is an ad for a mate and a declaration of territory, warning other males to keep their distance. If robins were to sing in crowded winter quarters, there could be mayhem. So they usually don't sing. First they migrate, spreading out, returning to old nesting grounds, filling the waiting continent. And then, as the Northern Hemisphere turns sunward, and the days lengthen, and conditions begin to feel right for attracting a mate, the males get the urge to sing.
The sound of music
Perhaps it's on a late afternoon heavy with the promise of warm rain. More cheerful week by week, robins splash in my birdbath. They patrol the grass in my front yard, pulling earthworms out of recently thawed soil. I hear them tuck-tucking and making whinnying calls, like the voices of tiny horses. Then one robin takes a commanding perch in the hawthorn, clears his throat, and whistles.
Cheer? Cheerily? the throaty song begins, and the robin pauses, ruffling his feathers.
I love those initial notes, like the violins' first bow strokes when the orchestra starts to tune up--not as musical as the symphony to come, but thrilling for their freshness on the ear and for the anticipation they sharpen in the listener. Then he pours out a full song,
Cheerily. Cheer up! Cheerio, cheerily?
It's the measured, deliberate melody that we listen to every spring, the song heard across North America, on every farm, in every neighborhood. Up and down goes the pitch, and on and on goes the song, until darkness falls.
And in the space of that song, spring has come.
-- Diane Cooledge Porter
Text and photos copyright 2006-1213 by Diane Porter.