Even after a mild winter, the calls of spring stir something in the blood of all who hear them. In marshes, the redwing blackbird chortles his raucous “ooka-lee” to announce that he has returned to his breeding territory. Male redwings arrive in late February or early March (I heard them first on Feb. 26 this year), a few weeks before the brown-streaked females. They immediately begin territorial displays upon arrival, showing their red and yellow shoulder patches, or “epaulets,” from high perches on cattails or tree branches, while uttering their distinctive calls.
Not far behind the redwing blackbird are flocks of migratory Canada geese. Their unmistakable cries, like those of baying hounds, reaching us from high in the March sky, never fail to quicken our pulse with the wild promise of a new season. John Burroughs speaks for many of us when he says: “I hurry outdoors when I hear the clarion of the wild gander; his comrade in my heart sends back the call.” When I follow their honking to the iconic V of a flock of high-flying Canada geese, I think of a wedge breaking up the ice of winter, although this year the image seems strangely out of place. In any case, these intrepid migrating geese are not to be confused with the separate populations of year-round resident Canada geese that throng our lawns, ball fields and golf courses, creating a nuisance with their droppings. These non-migratory geese are descendants of geese raised and released by game farms in the Northeast, such as those operated by the New York Conservation Department in the 1950’s and 60’s. Lack of predators, abundant habitat (large grassy areas near water), and intentional feeding by people have all contributed to the explosion of resident Canada goose populations in our region.
Henry Thoreau famously wrote that “heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads.” We might apply this thought as well to early signs of spring. As I pass by swamps, such as the “celery swamp” at the John Burroughs Sanctuary in West Park, I keep a sharp lookout for the speckled shoots of skunk cabbage, like purplish-brown or reddish horns poking up out of the muck. Called “spathes,” these are actually the first flowers of the year (along with those of the elm and the red maple). Named for its smell, skunk cabbage attracts carrion-seeking flies to pollinate its blossoms, which are small bumps on a fleshy spike hidden inside the hood-like spathe. Female flowers develop first, followed by their male counterparts. If you poke a finger into a skunk cabbage spathe and get some yellow pollen on it, you know that the male flowers are mature. An insect picking up pollen from this flower may then carry it to another whose female parts are ready, thus achieving cross-pollination.
Skunk cabbage has an astonishing adaptation to the cold of winter that allows it to bloom before any of our other wildflowers have emerged. Spaths containing flower buds have been around since last fall, unnoticed by most. Sometime near the end of February, they actually begin to generate heat by “burning” starch in the plant’s roots, at a greater or lesser rate depending on the outside temperature. This heat helps to release the plant’s distinctive odor, and is enough to melt snow and ice around the spath, which becomes a kind of “warming hut” for the hardy flies and bees that venture out on chilly days in search of pollen. It has been found that the skunk cabbage is able to maintain a constant temperature of 72 degrees Fahrenheit in this way for about two weeks, no matter how cold it is outside, an ability unique among all the plants of our region.
Whether we look up or down, the noisy or quietly astonishing harbingers of spring call to us outdoors. We need only pay attention to renew our sense of wonder at the irrepressible energy of the new season bursting out when, and where, we least expect.
Richard Parisio is a lifelong naturalist, educator and writer. He currently leads field trips for school classes at Mohonk Preserve, teaches courses about John Burroughs and conducts tours of Slabsides and the John Burroughs Sanctuary for groups and individuals by request. Rich is New York State coordinator for River of Words, a national poetry and art program on the theme of watersheds, and teaches River of Words programs for school classes, grades K-12, by request. Contact Rich (firstname.lastname@example.org) with questions, comments, or suggestions for Nature at Your Doorstep.