I was raised to view the return of the robin as emblematic of the beginning of spring. You know, "When the rob-rob-robin comes bob-bob-bobbin' along." It just doesn't work any more. Even in Minnesota, the robin is a year-round resident. Their numbers are fewer in the winter, but there are robins in the Twin Cities in January.
I suppose the swallows probably still do return to San Juan Capistrano on March 19th. But that's in California. Here in Minnesota, March 19th can hardly be called the beginning of spring. So I've awarded harbinger status to the red-winged blackbird, which I've seen daily for the last couple of weeks. They aren't around in the winter. They live on bugs for the most part, so they don't come to Minnesota until we are producing the insect populations for which we are sometimes disparaged. Hence, they are my designated harbinger of spring.
I did NOT select the red-winged blackbird because I am against an equitable division of labor in a family unit. Though the RWB could clearly stand for that proposition. Other than its "manly duties", the male RWB does little except (1) stake out a territory; (2) fly around its boundaries; and (3) defend the territory from intruders like crows, hawks and eagles. Keep your eyes open and you will see a male RWB doing just that sometime this summer. The females do everything else in raising the family (please, Kate, no vitriolic letters to the blog). Nest building? Female job. Hatching the kids? Female job. Feeding the kids? Female job. Anything not listed in the short list of male "jobs"? Female job.
And the males are much better looking than the females. Many people think the female is a big sparrow. They don't even get credit for being a RWB. I guess that is a male job too. Still, I like their call. I love to watch them at the cabin. Though I am NOT A SEXIST, they are a favorite bird of mine. And now, officially, my harbinger of spring.
While I'm at it, I should make the same suggestion that my friend Tom Hampson made to me many years ago. Bird watching is a great hobby. You can do it anywhere. And a great way to start is to make it a habit to try to identify every bird you see. Once you do it for a while it becomes second nature. Ogden Nash wrote, "You can get the heebie jeebies, separating Chickadees from Phoebes." But really, he was wrong. With just a little bit of effort it becomes easy to identify the common birds. You start to recognize how they fly. Where you see them. What shape their wings are. So when you see an uncommon bird (at least if you are as big a nerd as I am) it's kind of exciting. I could hardly wait to get back to my bird book when we saw this Stellar Jay in Bryce Canyon.
I don't keep a "life list" in a numerical sense. But I love seeing a new bird. The chance to bore my family and friends with this information is just a bonus. I encourage you to become a birder. You can decide on your own about the "bore your friends and family" part. I've lost touch with my birdwatching friend Tom. But I think of him often. Especially when I see a new bird.
And just a note to honor if I can two friends, Phil and Richard. Men in their early 70's, both of whom we lost to cancer this week. Two wonderful men. Very different. Phil was a favorite client. Always with a smile on his face and a twinkle in his eye. A good businessman who kept things in perspective and was a joy to be around. Richard had more of a Peter Pan personality. In some ways he never "grew up" (and I mean that as a compliment). But physically, boy did he grow up. A holiday party with Richard and his sons and their friends was the one time in my life where I had the chance to stand in a conversational circle and look up at everyone else's chins. And I will be eternally grateful to Richard. For he is the reason that Kate moved to Minnesota in the first place. Two very nice men. They'll be missed.