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04/10/08 7:55AM By Tom Slayton
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(HOST) Commentator Tom Slayton is a veteran journalist and editor-emeritus of Vermont Life magazine. He agrees with the popular notion that spring returns on the wing, but you may be surprised by the bird that he has in mind.  

(SLAYTON) This week's bright skies and warm sunshine have confirmed what many of us had almost begun to doubt: that yes, there will be spring this year.

Actually, though, there were some pretty strong clues nearly a month ago that spring was coming. That was about the time that birders throughout the state began seeing red-winged blackbirds. And redwings, more than robins, are the true harbingers of spring, at least in Vermont.

Early spring in Vermont is a rough and rugged time. It's a special part of my Vermont, a time when snowbanks start to crumble, back roads turn to mudholes, and steam begins to issue from sugarhouses across the state. Mud and maple syrup go together, for reasons that are as obvious as melting ice. And suddenly, Vermont wakes up from winter; there's work to be done!

However, we're not the only ones waking up and going about our business. There are lots of new birds arriving every day now. But the redwings have been infiltrating for weeks!

And now their raucous call can be heard along every bog, swamp and waterway: Okaleee! He shouts. Loud, harsh, and belligerent, the redwing's unmusical call is music to my ears.

There are a couple of fairly obvious places I go to see and hear this harbinger of early spring. One is Berlin Pond. But this year, because of the winter's heavy snowpack, the pond has been slow to open up. So I went to my other good redwing spot down along the Winooski River.

And there I was in luck. The river was open and flowing, and along its banks, hordes of redwings were swirling about, calling and jousting with one another for territory.

Actually it's only the male redwings that come up to Vermont now. Flocks of them swarm into the state en masse and as soon as they arrive, begin noisily competing for good nesting turf. Like any young bachelors, they're getting ready for the arrival of the ladies. They have a variety of calls and aggressive postures, all designed to bluff competing males away from the favored territory they have selected for their own.

A few weeks after the males arrival, flocks of females come in. They perch and wait for the males to make fools of themselves over them. As with our species, that usually doesn't take long, and females then select the mate and the territory they prefer and set about breeding and nesting.

By fall, the males' feathers, so glossy in the spring, have declined to a dull sheen and their once-brilliant red-and-yellow shoulder epaulets are faded and worn. It's now, in the early spring, that the males are at their most brilliant, and noisiest! They flash their flaming red epaulets at one another, pose belligerently, and call noisly, vigorously, insistently from every eminence and treetop.  

For me they are the true sound of spring in Vermont raucous, jarring, and loud. It goes well with this inspiring, ragged-but-right season. And my guess is that after this winter, even though they're technically flatlanders, they are a welcome sight, indeed, for many Vermonters!
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