Folk wisdom celebrates the American robin as the harbinger of spring – but folk wisdom would benefit from pulling up its window shades, venturing outdoors, and paying closer attention to its surroundings. In fact, a significant robin population hangs around the north all winter. Adaptable and omnivorous, robins do well in urban and suburban landscapes. When the ground is frozen and snow-covered (which was true for approximately 5 days in Brooklyn this winter) and they can’t slurp up worms, they flock to all those decorative trees and bushes that bloom in the spring and remain attractively fruit-covered through the winter.
Many robins do head south for the winter, and will soon be converging on lawns in a frenzy of worm-eating before continuing farther north, but their return is a gradual process, not a clear-cut event.
Still, the appeal of designating some bird as the “harbinger of spring” endures.
(A digression here to remember my first husband’s insistence that “harbinger” was the name of an actual bird. The harbinger bird must show up faithfully in the fall, he reasoned, or why else would people refer to the robin as the “harbinger of spring.” I always liked his way with analogies, even – or especially – when they took him in bizarre directions.)
So if it’s not the robin, what is it? Based on my own experience, and conversations with other birders, I came up with some candidates. And then, because I’m a nerd, I went looking for actual data.
Phoebes, oystercatchers and tree swallows disappear from Brooklyn during the winter (there are a few scattered historical sightings, but they’re few and far between), and start to return in mid to late March. It took some effort, but I managed to see all three of them this week. Of the three, the Eastern phoebe is my nominee for best harbinger of spring (and also for Bird of the Week). Tree swallows start showing up in small numbers in the first half of March (and I was lucky enough to see a couple at Jamaica Bay this week), but they’re really more of a lagging, not leading, indicator of the season. Oystercatchers keep a calendar similar to the phoebe’s (and are a cool-looking bird, with that blood-red bill and wild eyes), but if you want to see them, you need to go to the beach. Phoebes, in contrast, are birds of public parks and gardens. They’re a bird you can look for while you’re out walking around doing other stuff – and when you happen to see one, you can tell yourself that spring is here.
Which is really what you want in a harbinger bird.
This week’s list:
111. American oystercatcher*
112. Eastern phoebe
113. Tree swallow
* New York first
87 to go.