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Cracker Barrel: Gateway to Spring

March, as everybody knows, is a changeable time of the year, chock full of surprises. Of all months, March seems the most volatile. Each day brings something unexpected, now raising one's yearnings for spring, now dashing one's hopes in a sleet s...

March, as everybody knows, is a changeable time of the year, chock full of surprises. Of all months, March seems the most volatile. Each day brings something unexpected, now raising one's yearnings for spring, now dashing one's hopes in a sleet storm.

But those who make records of things have found through the years that many events are in fact predictable during March. Reading Janine Benyus's 'Northwoods Wildlife', I discovered that much of what happens in March is upbeat and life affirming.

According to Benyus, the reason for March's notorious snowstorms is rooted in rising temperatures. Warmer air holds more moisture, which is in turn deposited upon us in the form of precipitation. In late March, the freeze-thaw cycle triggers maple syrup flow, and warming days prompt pussy willows to bloom. A look upward will show buds of aspen and maple to be swelling in anticipation of leafing out.

In March the crows and red-tailed hawks return to the north woods, following the principle that those who migrated the shortest distances to over-winter are generally the first migrants to return. This is also the month of the bald eagle's return, and, toward the end of the month, the arrival of male red-winged blackbirds. Because females don't need to establish territories and don't start building nests until April, they usually stay south two weeks longer than the males. In fact, says Benyus, this same pattern holds true for most migratory songbird species.

In the mammal world, March marks the beginning of courtship for red squirrels, with amorous males chasing females over the snow, chattering noisily. River otters give birth to their young in dens near lakes or streams. Arctic shrews begin to nest, most commonly in cedar, tamarack, or black spruce swamps. Like other shrews, they are out day and night rooting in the leaf litter for insects and mice.

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During March, snowshoe hares begin their reversion from white to brown. By mid-April, when the earth is peeking through the snow, all their white camouflage will be gone. Chipmunks emerge from hibernation now, and switch from eating only cached seeds to eating almost anything. Their new diet includes young birds, eggs, mice, insects, and even small snakes. As the snow melts away in sunny places, meadow vole runways become visible. These runways, used throughout winter under the cover of snow, are easy to see in the matted grass. Benyus suggests one examine the runways closely for droppings, sleeping beds, and common areas.

Each year, weary of winter, we may look upon March as cruel punishment, an unbearable extension of torture. But if we see it through nature's eyes, it looks quite different. Seen truly, March is the gateway to spring.

Collections of Craig Nagel's columns are available at CraigNagelBooks.com

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