Wild About Spring

As I’m writing this, it’s snowing—big, fat flakes that come in spring storms, when we’re too tired of winter to appreciate how pretty it is. As a date on the calendar, spring begins on March 20, as if Mother Nature would flip a switch on that date and magically turn from snow to green grass. March always seemed much too early; for me, and for many people living in Canada, March is a month of snow and below zero temperatures. 

Purple flowers with yellow centers emerge from the brown grass.
Prairie crocus, one of the earliest spring wildflowers in the prairies. Photo by This Wild Curiosity.

What is spring? 

Astronomically speaking, in the northern hemisphere, spring begins on the vernal equinox, when the sun shifts to be directly overhead, giving us longer and warmer days. The longer days are only part of what we think about when we think of spring. Spring is about growth and rejuvenation and getting outside after a long winter. 

Even as we shake off the shackles of our toques and snow shovels, the nature world is waking up—birds return from their long migrations, buds emerge on the trees, animals come out of hibernation, and the first flowers poke out of the sometimes snow-covered ground. But how do they know that it’s spring, especially in the midst of a late spring snowstorm?

The first robin is a common indicator of spring. The return of this backyard bird with its burbling song is one of the first signs that we notice. Robins, like many other birds, migrate in the winter, moving south to follow the available food. Although we tend to think that birds migrate in response to cold temperatures, food sources are a larger driver and even tiny birds like hummingbirds can survive cold temperatures if they have enough food. 

Recent studies show that bird migration began with birds moving from north to south in search of food and that migratory distances expanded as climatic changes impacted food resources. For some birds, these distances are truly extraordinary. The Arctic tern travels more than 70,000 km every year as it makes a roundtrip journey from Greenland to Antarctica. Migration is such a significant phenomenon that migrating birds can be tracked using radar.

A white bird with a black head flies against the backdrop of a blue sky.
Arctic Tern (Sterna paradisaea) by Mike Pennington, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Some animals take the opposite approach to winter and hibernate, entering a state that slows their body metabolism. Unlike migrating birds, who rely on external stimuli to tell them when spring is arriving, some hibernating animals like marmots set an internal clock, waking up after a set number of days. Not all hibernators are the same. For example, bears are what are known as ‘light hibernators’ and are more closely connected to the world around them, becoming active in response to weather and temperature.

An aerial photo of a grizzly bear walking across a snowy landscape leaving tracks behind in the snow.
Warmer temperatures may bring bears, like this grizzly, out of hibernation while snow is on the ground. Bering Land Bridge National Preserve, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Animals aren’t the only ones waking up in the spring. Plants have their own ways of knowing when it’s time to leaf out or flower. Plants respond to temperature and the amount of daylight to know when the conditions are right for growth, allowing them to flower or grow leaves at around the same time each year.

One of the best things about spring is the way it reconnects us to nature and the world around us. The first green grass in the warm corner of your yard, spring wildflowers in the coulees, the return of robins and other songbirds bring nature closer as we find more opportunities to get outside. For us, spring can sometimes feel like a welcome surprise, but for the animals and plants who are connected to changes in temperature, food resources, and hours of daylight, it’s part of a natural progression. And it’s a progression I can’t wait to enjoy. Just as soon as the snow melts.