Jim McGuire: Riffin’ robin sings of spring


The morning was mild and wonderfully sunny, the sky a vast streaked canopy of gleaming blue with luminous clouds. White trunks on the big sycamores along the river gleamed.

One of those days that makes you thankful just to be out and about and able to breathe the heady air. My plan was to make a first stab at what I knew would be many hours of cleanup yard work.

After a winter’s worth of wind and storms, snow and rain, there was plenty of clutter. Loads of soggy leaves and sticks to be raked into piles, loaded into the wheelbarrow, and subsequently dumped onto the compost heap. Bushes needed trimming. And I’d grub out a few more of the dastardly honeysuckle which threatened to take over my hillside.

However, fresh air, lots of sunshine, and what my Grandpa Williams used to call “honest sweat labor,” isn’t a bad formula for spending a day. I was looking forward to making progress.

I’d been working for perhaps an hour when a robin suddenly cut loose in exuberant song. He was sitting on the topmost limb of a nearby walnut tree, reared back, rusty-red breast radiant in the strong light.

I grinned with pleasure and leaned on my mattock to listen. He’d had me about three notes into his lilting melody.

Robins are the classic symbol of spring. Enduring avian icons, still eagerly anticipated by us old-school types who’ve long considered them a necessary, quintessential proof that winter is truly over.

Maybe you’ll witness just a single red-breasted bird perched on the high branch of a still-leafless tree. Or you might look out a window and see a darting, bobbing, hundred-strong flock energetically working the winter-sparse lawn.

Regardless, you’re immediately buoyed, your hopes and faith vindicated! Winter did not last forever. The earth has turned and blessed spring has again found its way to your door.

Seeing is believing…and so is hearing!

Yup, calendars and almanacs list the official date of spring’s debut. I’ve had the day circled in green for months. But the sound of that singing bird—the swinging, melodious riff, which always reminds me of some jazzy Hoagy Carmichael pop tune—made the abstract real.

Robins are probably the most recognizable of our backyard birds. For generations of winter-weary folks, the annual reappearance of these red-breasted songsters provided that cheery irrefutable confirmation of the vernal season’s glorious return.

There was a time, not too long ago, when witnessing the year’s first robins constituted a newsworthy event, something you’d tell your friends and family about. It wasn’t uncommon for a local paper to run a front page paragraph reporting their arrival.

That’s not the case anymore. Times have changed. We’re no longer so closely attuned to nature and the natural world.

Our society has instead become more urbanized, digitized and disconnected from things elemental. We’re losing our awareness of the nuances and relationships between earth and sky, weather and season, plants and animals.

Phenology is the term for this ability to note such changes and make connections. But that’s only a fancy word for something that’s been practiced by everyday folks since time immemorial.

Robins still substantiate spring in the minds of many, though their heralding message isn’t quite so true anymore.

We still tend to think of robins as warm-weather visitors—birds which arrive with the spring and depart in autumn. Which was historically accurate.

Yet several decades of milder winters allowed robins to habitually hang around. Flocks of over-wintering birds have been on the increase hereabouts since the 1950s.

Overwintering robins remain unsuspected because they’re nomadic, remaining in an area only so long as sufficient food is available. They’re also more apt to be found in thickets and areas of denser vegetation—protected places such as tangled borders, fencerows, and boggy woodlands.

A case of “out of sight, out of mind.” Being less visible, wintering robins are regularly missed by backyard birdwatchers.

I know this. And during the previous months, I’ve spotted scads of robins during my outdoor rambles.

But such details have no impact whatsoever on my heart and mindset. When that robin in the walnut cut loose in glorious song, my spirits soared.

No doubt about it…that cocky, riffin’ robin was singing in the spring!


By Jim McGuire

Contributing Columnist

Jim McGuire, a nature columnist, resides in Englewood, and can be reached at [email protected].

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