first birdsong of the year

Subject: first birdsong of the year
From: "Wim Vader" <>
Date: Thu, 10 Feb 2005 14:41:54 +0100

                                        TRUE AND FALSE SIGNS OF SPRING AT 70*N

The last days we have here in Tromsø, N.Norway, had strong to stormy winds
from the south, a temperature around or even a few degrees above freezing,
and no precipitation; we even see the sun now and then. But as the proverb
here plainfully asks: "How long was Adam in Paradise?" For tomorrow snow is
again forecast!

But this morning the  gusty southerly winds did not really feel cold, and
clearly the birds felt the same, as the Greenfinches were out in force
(although not in song as yet) and in Folkeparken several tit flocks were in
full activity. In addition, I heard at least 5 different Parus major, the
Great T*I*T*, in full song, quite suddenly, as I had looked  ('listened
out?') in vain for this always so welcome start of the new song year
already for weeks. There are reasons why I have to teach you the Norwegian
name of this bird, the Kjøttmeis (kjøtt is meat, and the name is for the
birds predilection for meat and flesh hung up in winter): in my last piece
I had innocently used the english name, with the somewhat unexpected result
that my mail first was refused by one of the lists, as it was said to
'contain profanity'. And the only reason I can imagine for that is that the
English name for this bird is identical to the colloquial vernacular for
certain female attributes! I shall therefore use 'Kjøttmeis' here, which
must be innocuous enough.

The song of these Kjøttmeis is a 2-tone saw, and every bird has its own
variation of this; not only that, but many birds have a repertoire of
several 'saws' and switch from one to another. Apprently the number
increases with age, and dominant males have more different jingles than
subordinate ones. I still remember when as a boy I first heard this song
consciously, on my first excursion with the youth nature club, where i had
become a member at age 12. But at that time the jingle was a three note
saw, and that was the common thing all during my youth---I lived in a
village, by Dutch standards out in the country. I have been back in
Krabbendijke several times during the last years, and nowadays one hears
both 2- and 3-note saws from the local Kjøttmeis (which are mainly resident
birds). Thereby hangs a tale: during the last years research, both in
Finland and in Holland, has shown that the change from 3- to 2-note saws
has primarily occurred in areas with a ltot of ambient noise (i.e. in the
cities), and the 2-note jingle also carries better than the 3-note one.

Of course this song is not really a true sign of spring to come; in Holland
the kjøttmeis sing all winter on fine days. Also, spring does not really
arrive in Tromsø until somewhere in May, and it is many weeks until then.
Still, we yearn for spring, and people (and the local newspapers)
therefore  note all kinds of 'signs of spring', which is reality are
spurious, while often overlooking the real signs of spring beckoning in the
far distance.

A well-known spurious sign of spring are the people phoning us--or writing
in the newspapers-- telling they have seens the first skeins of Greylag
Geese arriving. Such calls we get every winter, and almost always it turns
out that people are mistaken, and that that they mistake (in the bad
daylight of winter), skeins of Cormorants for the geese they so much want
to see.

Another so-called sign, which already I saw in the local newspaper this
week, is 'the first butterfly of the season'. Almost invariably that is
Aglais urticae, and people are unaware of the fact that this species
winters as imago in outhouses etc, and that the specimens flying around in
winter are such that have been disturbed somehow in their winter rest. A
little bit more reality lies behind the first Coltsfoot Tussilago farfara
in flower, that small girls carry to the newspaper office, in order to get
their picture in the paper. But also here it almost always turns out to be
flowers that grow at places where there is an influx of artificial heat,
e.g. where ventilation channels exit. Coltsfoot IS our first flower, but
the real flowering does not start before April.

So are their other real signs than the ever increasing day length? Well
yes, a little bit! I sat in a budget meeting today, and outside the window
all afternoon 10-15 magpies gathered , flocked and chased each other. These
'magpie parliaments' are a real feature of late winter--early spring, and
their function seems to have something to do with pair formation and the
establishment of a pecking order in the local magpie population. The pair
in my neighbours' garden also is regularly seen at last year's nest these
days, although I have not seen them fly with sticks as yet.

An other early sign of spring to come is the Long Call of the large gulls
on the shore, which can be heard with increasing frequency. And earlier
this week I heard the full 'song' of the Hooded Crow, also for the first
time this year.

But we still have more than a meter of snow on the ground, and no doubt
more to come; the all time snow record 8 years ago was on 29 April!  So
real spring is still quite far away!

                                                                        Wim Vader, 
Tromsø Museum
Tromsø, Norway

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