Recognizing the Signs of Spring

When the tufted titmouse sings, and the spring azure butterfly appears, spring cannot be far behind. Also discusses the history of St. Patrick's Day.

| February/March 1995

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    Few small birds have a voice so amazingly loud as the tufted titmouse.
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    The tiny spring azure butterfly is one of the first to appear after winter is done.

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In past columns I've discussed robins and grackles and spring peepers. But two other signs that spring is coming are an increase in the songs of the tufted titmouse and the appearance of tiny butterflies called spring azures.

Most people who have bird feeders and live in the eastern half of the United States are familiar with the tufted titmouse. This bird is small but distinctly larger than its relative, the chickadee. Few other small birds have the titmouse's tufted crest of feathers on the head. The titmouse is mostly gray, but it has a white breast with buff-colored flanks and a white face surrounding oversized beads of black eyes. It is interesting that the titmouse usually sits more upright than the chickadee, but you don't need a subtle feature like that to tell the titmouse apart from the littler, round-headed, black-bibbed chickadee.

Tufted titmice are the only kind of titmouse in the whole eastern half of the United States (a few other kinds are found in south Texas and parts of the Southwest). While the tufted has spread farther north with the help of feeders and has extended its range to southern Ontario, it has not yet reached the north parts of the northernmost tier of states.

The titmouse emits its notes all year long. But when the February days are warm enough for me and the titmouses to be out and about, the forest begins to echo with a noticeable increase in the number of their calls. Few small birds have a voice so amazingly loud. The most common version of the call is said to sound like "Peter, Peter, Peter," but there are variations—one of which (to my mind) sounds like "GOOD bird, GOOD bird." Roger Tory Peterson states that—although the calls are somewhat similar to those of chickadees—the tufted titmouse's are "more drawling, nasal, wheezy, and complaining." But, as with the chickadees, the complaining of these admirable little birds is likely to amuse you and bring you good cheer—especially if it comes in February and makes you hopeful that spring is coming with its full symphony of birdsong.

Suppose, however, that March comes—March and maybe even the official first day of spring—and the weather is still cold. Where do you look for hope of real spring? It may come fluttering past you in the form of a little spot of color. The spring azure is a butterfly that looks like the tiniest piece of blue sky brought down to Earth to dance among the first grasses. It measures 0.4 by 1.1 inches and yet it's twice as big as a related species, the Western Pygmy Blue (America's smallest butterfly). The spring azure occurs in over 13 different variations and you might very well get close enough to see the tiny details. It is a member of the family of butterflies called blues. They are complemented by copper-red, black-spotted little butterflies called coppers (the American copper may be the United States' most common butterfly).

You may have to wait a little later to see your first copper of the year. The azure blue is often the first butterfly of all, frequently seen by late March (at least around 40° North latitude). And when you witness a butterfly fluttering past you on a somewhat chilly March day, you'll know that the real spring must truly be near. A mobile patch of blue not much bigger than your fingertip may change the grey mood that has been oppressing you for months!


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