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Signs of spring

About two months ago, three children walked past my house as if on a solemn mission. Unlike children at play, they walked quickly, their voices sounding serious. I asked where they were off to, and their answer surprised me. “We’re looking for the first robins,” they replied. “Spring is here next week, and we are going to find her.”

Although I don’t know for sure, my guess is their interest in robins was not part of a broader fascination with birds, but rather the thrill of spring weather that robins represent. So I suggested they head for the wetland down at the end of the cul-de-sac, and they politely thanked me. I required no thanks and wished I could have given them further instructions.

For I remembered when I was very young and associated the first robin on the lawn with being the absolute harbinger of spring. I, like many of us, was unaware that some robins winter over and that other species appear well before the robins on the lawn. Those children were in search of spring, but did they know they could have found spring weeks earlier in the sweet call notes of the eastern phoebe or the strident calls of the red-wing blackbird or by the sighting of a pine warbler?

And while, on those cool days of late winter and early spring, these spring harbingers bring great excitement and appreciation for the seasonal changes, the thrill of the first truly summer-like days in June is at least equally incredible, rich and full of neotropical migrants singing and settling in. It is now that the beautiful rose-breasted grosbeak, Baltimore oriole, and ruby-throated hummingbird arrive in Connecticut. These birds migrate thousands of miles to breed here, and all of them can be lured to within easy sight at your feeders. Perhaps the easiest to attract is the ruby-throated hummingbird.

Imagine this tiny bird weighing no more than the nickel in your pocket flying nonstop six hundred miles across the Gulf of Mexico to arrive here. Unfortunately, this year the hummingbirds arrived during that cold snap we had in early May. They survived by inducing a state similar to hibernation called noctivation, which lowered their body temperature and nectar-dependent metabolism to conserve heat and keep them in a torpor, until conditions were favorable for feeding. Little wonder that these birds were eager to sip high-energy sugar nectar at our convenient feeders.

While hummingbird feeders ought to be bright red, Baltimore orioles are attracted to orange feeders. Like the hummingbird, orioles will also feed on sugar nectar in similar-appearing, bottle-like feeders. Orioles like fruit as well, and some birders have success by offering sliced oranges hung in an onion bag or on a fly-through feeder.

Rose-breasted grosbeaks eat fruit, too. They prefer grape jelly and consume large amounts of black oil sunflower seeds. The rose-breasted grosbeak is one of my favorites. It has a beautiful song. Like the red-eyed vireo, its song sounds far off, atmospheric, and emanates from high up in the trees where the gentle spring winds sway.

I often think of those neighborhood children and the excitement they derived from the bright promise of the robins. Today, we are living that promise; ruby-throated hummingbirds, Baltimore orioles, and rose-breasted grosbeaks tell us the migration is completing, and the warm days of summer are here. Those children found the spring, and through their eyes we can, too.

Robert Tougias is a Colchester-based birder. His book "Birder on Berry Lane" is now available. Contact him with questions at



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