Call of spring

It’s been a while since we stopped to smell the roses, as it were. But a few weeks ago, just relaxing on our back porch, my wife and I sighed simultaneously. Aloud we recognized, despite the abundance of rain and the not-so-warm temperatures, and its rather clumsy entrance, that spring had finally, thankfully and delightfully arrived. But Jayne noted something I hadn’t noticed.

“It’s awfully quiet this year,” she said. “The sounds of birds aren’t there like usual.”

I asked her, did she simply mean the calls of songbirds seemed less loud? Or were there perhaps different chirps and chatters than normal? No, she thought the calls were fewer and farther between. And when I pressed her, she reminded me that the house wrens that had nested in the bird house off our backyard deck were missing.

She has an ear for the wrens’ chatter, or as ornithologists describe it, the house wren’s “sharp chep or cherr, or several short notes, followed by a bubbly explosion of spluttering notes.” In either case, she said, they weren’t around. More out of reflex than knowledge, I wondered if maybe it was just a bit too early for them.

I’ll bet it’s the same for many of us this time of year. Somehow the calls of certain birds imprint on the brain and create an indelible connection to the season. Just like the legendary cliff swallows that Father St. John O’Sullivan noted in his book, a hundred years ago, returning to his mission in San Juan Capistrano, birds in springtime often have special meaning.

For some, such as dedicated bird counters it’s the Arctic-bound flocks retracing their flyways through Point Pelee National Park on Lake Erie. For others, it’s the blue birds that nest in bird houses replenished on fence posts each year along the grid roads of the Saskatchewan prairie. For me, it’s often as simple as hearing the first robin back in the treetops come late March or early April.

One spring – I think it was the year we celebrated my mother’s 50th birthday – all the relatives gathered at our hobby farm over in Manvers Township. It was unusual that the family had decided to gather in spring; generally, we tried for Christmas or during the summer holidays, but because Easter fell on my mom’s birthday, we assembled on May 1, 1973. In Mom’s honour, we cooked a roast on an outdoor spit. And with our spring jackets on, throughout the afternoon we huddled for warmth around the makeshift rotisserie waiting for the Easter/birthday meal to be ready. At one point during the afternoon, my mother emerged from the indoor kitchen to see how the roast was doing outside.

It was perfect timing. Suddenly we could hear a growing symphony of bird calls way above us. We all looked up and witnessed the largest spring migration of birds I think any of us had ever seen. Without exaggeration, the sky was dark with the flock. The Vs seemed to stretch from one horizon to the other. And the cacophony of calls made us stop talking and just listen to this awesome force of Nature – the spring migration north of Canada geese. Ever since, whenever I’ve heard or seen Vs of geese, especially in springtime, I can think of nothing, no one but my mother and her birthday geese.

This year, despite what seemed the absence of the wrens, our backyard has sprung to life with the clatter of hairy woodpeckers. A few years ago, woodpeckers hollowed out one of the trees as an insect feeding centre. This year, a family pecked a hole and an entire nesting area inside one of the upright poplar trunks. And around the clock, it seems, we’ve been serenaded by either the pecking of the adults gathering insects from nearby trees, or the chirping of hungry young chicks whenever the parents return with their catches. The soundscape is incessant, but also reassuring – a true sign of spring rejuvenation.

Just the other night, again we sat on the back porch listening to the woodpecker parents pecking and the chicks chirping, “Me first! Me first!” Then, suddenly there was a new and different addition to the backyard audio. Jayne heard it first, that “sharp chep or cherr” and “a bubbly explosion of spluttering notes,” that the bird books had described.

“It’s the wrens!” she blurted out. And then we watched as either one of the house wrens that had nested in the bird house last year, or perhaps an offspring, hopped to the house entrance and flitted inside as if it had never left.

“You were right,” Jayne added, meaning that as I had guessed maybe the house wrens were later than the other birds in arriving. And I asked her to mark down the date on the calendar (partly because I’m rarely correct at predicting anything, but mostly) so we’ll know when to expect our winged harbingers of spring next year.

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