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Rethinking The First Signs Of Spring

Chris Smith

For eons in New England, a First Sign of Spring has been sap oozing from a maple tree. In northwestern Montana, officials at Glacier National Park report that a long understood First Sign of Spring is the appearance of a bear — emerging from hibernation. In other parts of the country, the telltale signs have long been natural recurrences, such as the appearance of crocuses, sandhill cranes, great blue herons and stinging nettles.

But the world is changing and maybe it's time to reconsider and draw up a new list. Where do we look in 2014 for that initial hint of spring – the season's on-button?


Time was, the arrival of robins used to herald the oncoming of spring in Washington. But these days, lots of robins spend the whole winter rocking the Mid-Atlantic and, according to Robert K. Musil, president of the Rachel Carson Council, the robins that do migrate "are showing up about three weeks earlier than they did in Thoreau's day, according to his notes."

The Rachel Carson Council is a nonprofit group, based in the Washington suburbs, that carries on the environmental monitoring and education begun by Rachel Carson, author of Silent Spring.

It seems, Robert says, "we need a new harbinger of spring in these days of a warming world and wildly varying and disrupted climate patterns."

Robert suggests that the best New First Sign of Spring might be the Black Vulture. "These used to be purely southern birds and they are not noted — except rarely-- in the careful notes and observations of Washington nature writers and observers from the past ."

He is talking about John Burroughs in the 1860s, Elliott Coues in the 1880s, Florence Merriam Bailey 1890s, Theodore Roosevelt in the early 1900s and Louis Halle, Rachel Carson and Roger Tory Peterson in the1940s and 1950s.

Today, Black Vultures have moved northward, Robert says, and now are resident around the National Zoo, the C&O Canal and other Washington spots. "If you look up," he says, "you may see one hovering over you... We've moved, thanks to climate change, from the cheery robin to the scary circling of the Black Vulture."


Traditionally for baseball fans, the First Sign of Spring was the day that pitchers and catchers reported to spring training.

Sportswriter Thomas Boswell of The Washington Post says that has shifted. The best professional baseball players, especially the team leaders, no longer report on the day they are supposed to, Boz says. "They report when, as adults, they think they should."

So spring this year, Boz says, began when Washington Nationals shortstop Ian Desmond reported to spring training in Viera, Fla. — a week before the mid-February date on which pitchers and catchers reported "and almost two weeks before regulars like him are supposed to report."

Desmond showed up early, Boz says, "so he can work on fielding mechanics and learn the new manager's ideas on advanced-metrics defensive positioning. He's been doing drills by throwing to first base from his knees and studying spray charts of opposing hitters to use new defensive shifts."

The New First Sign of Spring, when it comes to baseball, has changed in recent years, Boz says, because "players are much more serious now. Those $50-to-$250-million contracts get your attention. And Desmond, for example, may get a $75 million to $125 million deal within two years --from the Nats or somebody else."

So greed has reset spring's alarm clock? "It's not just greed," Boz says. "It's professionalism."

And Beyond

Khaki shorts. Spring dresses. Seersucker suits. Clothes have long proved to be sure First Signs of Spring.

In 19th century Chicago there was a man named Popcorn John who sold bags of popcorn year round. "He never wears a coat," according to a Chicago Tribune reporter in 1896, "except during the coldest days of winter." And then when he put the coat away, "the sleeves of his clean white shirt flap in the wind ... and the flutter of those same sleeves is the first sign of spring."

Fashions change, of course, so according to Glamour, New Signs of Spring 2014 include wide-leg trousers and tea-length skirts.

But in some places in America, the First Signs of Spring pretty much stay the same year after year. At least that's true at one naturist resort. "I don't think nudists are much different than in the past regarding the seasonal change to spring," says Don Kiester of Nature's Hideaway Nudist Resort in Osage, Oklahoma. "As the weather warms, we take advantage of the weather by enjoying the sunshine, while working around the resort in the nude."

Have the First Signs of Spring changed where you live?

The Protojournalist is an experiment in reporting. Abstract. Concrete. @NPRtpj

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Linton Weeks
Linton Weeks joined NPR in the summer of 2008, as its national correspondent for Digital News. He immediately hit the campaign trail, covering the Democratic and Republican National Conventions; fact-checking the debates; and exploring the candidates, the issues and the electorate.
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