Are Robins Really the Harbinger of Spring?

I’d always heard that seeing a red-breasted robin signaled the beginning of spring weather. I never gave it much thought except to say the magic words when I saw the first red-breasted robin of the year: “I see a robin! Spring is here!”

When I saw the first robin in February 2011, I smiled, but with little belief that there was any meaning to the sighting. More-so than most years, winter had left me full of the gloomies. It had been a particularly harsh winter with the feel of never-ending cold bones, and I longed for the coming of spring.

A week later when I saw half a dozen red-breasted robins in the backyard, knowing that the day was supposed to be a warm and sunny spring-like day, I thought maybe there was something to the old wives’ tale.

In the northern states the sighting of a red-breasted robin, also known as the American robin or North American robin (Turdus migratorius), would surely mean that spring had arrived. After all, robins fly south for the winter and the return of a migrating robin would signal the arrival of warm weather.

Birds don’t follow a calendar. They follow actual weather patterns, so the return of the red-breasted robin to a northern state would indeed be a harbinger of spring. But what happens if you live in a southern state like I do? How does the first sighting of the red-breasted robin signal spring?

In the eastern United States, robins migrate to Florida, the Gulf Coast, and down into Mexico. As I live in Georgia, the robins would be passing through my backyard on their way back north.

Robins lay eggs earlier in the year than many other birds, and they rarely breed in the South, so robins would be one of the first to migrate northward to their breeding grounds, giving truth to the old wives’ tale that seeing a robin is a sign of spring.

Spring happens earlier in Georgia than it does in New York, so the arrival of a half dozen red-breasted robins would mean that they are on their spring migration, and every state they land in should feel the spring sunshine just as the robins are passing through.

The old wives were right!

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