After a rough night, I woke up at dawn to the sound of a robin singing.
Last night was bad. The coronavirus pandemic sweeping the world dominated every corner of the news, with every headline more horrifying than the last: Rates of infection doubling. Schools, restaurants, offices closing. Major events cancelled. Unemployment rising. Mandatory lockdowns enforced. Intensive care units overwhelmed. Essential medical supplies exhausted. Death rates spiking. Confusion running rampant. In the darkest hours, it seemed as if everything in life was shifting, as if nothing would ever be the same.
But at first light today a robin was singing, pouring out those rich whistles that writers have transcribed as cheer-up, cheerily, cheer-up, and somehow those sappy syllables didn’t seem so trivial in this moment. It was a song of Earth awakening from winter sleep, a song of hope: Spring is here!
At my latitude in northern Ohio, the robins don’t all leave in winter. Some do, but others join flocks ranging through swamps and thickets. The “first robin of spring” isn’t a real concept here; you can find your first on New Year’s Day if you look in the right places. Still, the species goes missing for months across most of the landscape. But there’s a point in March when the winter flocks start to break up, and others come pumping in from the south, and individuals suddenly appear in tens of thousands of back yards that haven’t seen a robin since October. This widespread influx is a genuine sign of spring.
As the robin sang on in the half-light of dawn, I reflected on the accident of timing. If there could be any silver lining to the dark cloud of the coronavirus pandemic, it would be the fact that it’s hitting us in North America just as spring arrives. How much more bleak it would seem at the onset of winter, with long nights and bitter cold nailing down the feeling of despair. Instead, as human society shifts into fear and isolation and a sense of shutting down, nature is sending the opposite message. The signal is faint in some places, but even from a city window we might notice the longer hours of daylight, see buds opening on distant trees, or hear the songs of birds.
Over most of North America, the spring migration of birds stretches out for more than three months, and it always proceeds in the same reliable order. Some short-distance migrants like grackles and Red-winged Blackbirds start to move in early February. Ducks, geese, and cranes are also moving in February, and their flight becomes a flood by March, pushing north wherever they can find open water. During March and into April the native sparrows and tiny kinglets are flitting through leafless thickets, robins appear everywhere, and the first big hawk flights push through. Week by week, more different species are added to the mix. Then a wave of long-distance migrant songbirds comes sweeping north out of the tropics—warblers, tanagers, orioles, buntings, vireos, thrushes, a dazzling galaxy of colorful sprites—peaking in the southern states in April and in the north in May. By early June, after the crescendo has passed, certain sandpipers and plovers still loiter along the water’s edge, still on their way to breeding grounds on Arctic tundra.
Details differ from place to place, but this vast parade happens everywhere, from the wilderness to the tiniest city park. Migrating birds fly through every square mile of air space from coast to coast. Some may pause in any tree or on any pond. Wherever we are, we are all on the flyway.
The arrival of various species may vary by a few days, but the overall patterns hold: Most northbound ducks pass through before April, for example, and most flycatchers don’t arrive until May, regardless of yearly variations in weather. Dedicated birders take delight in how the season unfolds in the same sequence every year. Watching spring migration is like listening to a favorite piece of music, anticipating each movement and savoring them all while they last. There’s comfort and reassurance in knowing that familiar patterns will repeat in the same reliable way.
Comfort and reassurance are in short supply right now, especially when we focus on the increasing drumbeat of grim news. But if we step outside (cautiously, with attention to maintaining safe distances) or look out a window, we’ll see positive signs. Birds are arriving from their winter homes in growing numbers every day, many having survived truly miraculous journeys. Some pass through, others stake out nesting territories and prepare to raise the next generation. While so much in our lives is thrown into disarray, nature’s calendar is moving along on schedule, exactly as it should. When we emerge from this dark passage, the robins will be out there singing to greet a new day for them, and for us.