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Wednesday, 06 March 2013 14:37

The harbingers of spring are upon us

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mtn voicesAs you read this it may well be freezing or even icy outside. But before long you’ll be outside working in the garden or searching for early spring wildflowers.

How do I know? Well, for one thing, it always happens doesn’t it? Spring follows winter. Yes, but certain early signs — harbingers of spring — also assure me that things are on track.

Song sparrows are working on their songs for mating and territorial purposes. It’s a little comical to listen to their first efforts, which come out as an incoherent jumble of notes. Before long, however, they’ll have the notes down pat.

Eastern towhees are just as amusing. Their full song by mid-March or earlier will be “drink-your-tea!” Now you only hear a tentative “drink” or “tea” … never the full song. One would assume that much involving bird song for each species is genetic, but much is also obviously “relearned” from year to year. Or maybe a better analogy is that birds in early spring are like fine musicians who have had a long layoff.

Red-winged blackbirds have made their appearance in small numbers here in Swain County. It’s curious that the males come first with their bright red-and-yellow epaulettes flashing. Then the females, which resemble large streaked sparrows, will appear. The males are, I suppose, scouting out the terrain … making sure things are shipshape. Then, in late summer and fall, the males will depart southward followed a little later by the females and young birds.

Ruby-throated hummingbirds and other species also utilize the same male/female migration strategy. Most notable in this regard are the purple martins, which arrive almost every year on March 15 here in Bryson City.

The all-dark males will fly over residences to which they have returned for years complaining if the homeowners don’t have their gourds or houses properly situated. Then the females with their dark backs and white bellies will arrive and set up house.

Among my favorite harbingers of spring are the tassel-like catkins that dangle from the tag alder (alnus serrulata) shrubs that grow along creeks or in wet meadows. These structures are normally two to three inches in length, but they can sometimes be five or so inches long. Catkins are a very ancient invention for pollinating flowers by wind to make seed.

In early spring they expand and display the bright yellow pollen that had been sealed inside the structure through the long winter. In The Natural History of Wild Shrubs (1989) Donald Stokes describes what happens next: “The pollen matures a little at a time, and instead of falling directly out of the catkin, collects in little cup-like sections of the flowers. When there is sufficient wind, the pollen is blown out and, with a little luck, carried to a female flower. The female catkins are very different in appearance. They are small and shaped like miniature pine cones.”      

These yellow-shimmering catkins, dangling in great numbers over a meadow or stream, are a delight when they catch your eye … sure harbingers-of-spring.

George Ellison wrote the biographical introductions for the reissues of two Appalachian classics: Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders and James Mooney’s History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. In June 2005, a selection of his Back Then columns was published by The History Press in Charleston as Mountain Passages: Natural and Cultural History of Western North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains. Readers can contact him at P.O. Box 1262, Bryson City, N.C., 28713, or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .    

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