For the Birds: Phoebe would be a better ‘harbinger of spring’

Photo by Chris Bosak An Eastern Phoebe perches on a branch in Selleck's Woods in Darien, Conn., in late March 2015.

The American robin has long been known as a harbinger of spring. In fact, of all the “signs of spring” that we see each March, the robin is perhaps the most popular.

I certainly have no problem with anyone getting excited about seeing a robin in early spring. Anything that offers hope and optimism is a good thing. 

Many robins, however, have been around all winter in New England. They just haven’t been as visible as they are in the spring and summer. In winter, many robins travel in large flocks throughout the woods looking for leftover berries, and other morsels.

To me anyway, the eastern phoebe would be the perfect harbinger of spring bird. 

Unlike robins, phoebes do not winter in New England and return only in the spring. In fact, eastern phoebes show up in New England pretty much on the dot of spring. This year, my first sighting of an eastern phoebe was March 21, one day after the official start of spring. 

So the eastern phoebe is gone all winter and returns just in time for spring. It is a bird that we haven’t seen since the fall migration. To me, that is the perfect example of a harbinger of spring. This being New England, I must put in the caveat that unofficially winter can linger well into April. 

One can also make the argument that red-winged blackbirds are a harbinger of spring as well because they migrate in the fall, and we don’t see them until the spring. My reservation about calling red-winged blackbirds a sign of spring is that they show up a bit too early. This year especially they started showing up in good numbers in February. February is too early to start getting excited about spring, especially in New England.

Perhaps eastern phoebes do not get the recognition they deserve because they are not showy or charismatic. They are small, drably colored, have a fairly soft and modest song and do not command a lot of attention. By contrast, robins are larger, more colorful,  more widely recognized, and grab one’s attention more as they hop around low-cut grassy areas in great numbers.

Either way you look at it, spring is either here or right around the corner in New England. Now, even the calendar says so. There are buds on the trees, crocuses in the lawn and spring peepers are making their commotion in the swamps. 

That all confirms that spring is here, regardless of what bird you consider the true harbinger of spring. 

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