Do you have a favorite axiom or indicator that tells you spring has arrived? As usual, the Masked Biologist has much to say on the topic in this week’s Wildlife Matters.
Spring is a tricky season, no two ways about it. There is so much riding on the arrival of spring, and springtime conditions. Animal migration, emergence from winter dens, plants leaving dormancy all heavily impact the Northwoods. Timing is everything; birds have to nest at the right time—songbirds need copious insects to feed their young, eagles need open water to find fish, and owls need to be able to catch rodents.
Humans, too, take a gamble on spring, although the stakes are less often life and death. We might plant out flowers too early or pull down our storm windows resulting in some cold, drafty nights. A notable exception is farmers, who stake their livelihood on the springtime weather. Here in Wisconsin, farming is crucial to our way of life, and one bad call in spring can be disastrous for one farmer or for the industry as a whole.
I come from a long line of farmers, depending on how you define farming. My third great grandfather was a farmer in Brandenburg, Germany, who got the farm from his father. Sadly, he was killed by a French soldier during the Franco-Prussian war, so his widow and their younger children fled to Berlin and eventually the United States, where they found themselves in a German community in Milwaukee. My second great grandfather worked two jobs until he could buy some farmland where the Milwaukee Airport stands today. My great-grandfather bought his own farm from his father-in-law, and operated it with his son, my grandfather, who sold fresh flowers, hot house (greenhouse) plants, nursery trees and produce with his wife and my parents.
They had very little in the way of weather forecasting when my family first arrived, but they had information from locals, who in some cases learned from the Native Americans; they had some weather knowledge they brought along from Germany; and for those whose children were learning to read and write in English, they had the Farmer’s Almanac. If you are not familiar, an almanac was (and still is) a book that would give long term weather forecasts. It would tell you which days were best for planting or harvesting crops. It had lots of other information, too, wise old sayings and clever axioms that made a lot of sense. Modern day analysis of the almanac’s predictions give varying results, but place the accuracy of their forecasts roughly 50%. This is the flip of a coin, right? In other words, any single forecast had equal odds of being right or wrong. By modern meteorological standards, you might say you’d expect better, but think back. There was no internet. There was no television. It was decades before radios even appeared in homes. The newspaper was your communications lifeblood, the written word was your best bet to share and receive important information about the world.
This Wildlife Matters episode started out because I wanted to talk about one of my favorite springtime axioms—the robin has to feel snow on its back three times before spring can arrive. I have been watching this one much of my life, having heard it from childhood. This spring, as every spring, I noted the first time I heard the familiar robin’s call; then I counted snowfalls. Now, three snowfalls is subjective, so I quantify it; I am a scientist after all. I figure for a robin to feel the snow, we need to get at least a trace of snow to stick to the grass. We can’t just see flurries in the wind—it has to be a snow event. Last week, the third snow event occurred, so I hereby declare the arrival of spring—at least according to my favorite axiom. Here in the Northwoods, we might have other barometers, like the arrival of wood ducks, or bears emerging from dens, or maybe you check the forecast with the nearest groundhog in February. A few years ago, I forecast a severe winter based on a number of old almanac axioms, and promised to follow up in spring. The results were disappointing. The winter was not severe by most accounts. my informal survey found an accuracy rate of about 50%.
Whether you go by Native American folklore, almanac predictions, axioms and wives’ tales, or phenology of local plants and animals, these all have one thing in common—they tie people to nature and the weather. There is a reason that weather is the number one go-to icebreaker or conversation starter. We all have it in common, it affects us all. Did we get wet on the way to work? Did our plans for the weekend change? Are we happy or unhappy because of the length of daylight or amount of clouds? For my ancestors, it could have meant the loss of an entire potato or tomato crop. For me, it could mean I uncovered my boat too soon. For wildlife, it could mean they get snowed on, or they fail to find food and starve. Like I said at the outset—spring is a tricky season, no two ways about it.