Otto Ballon Mierny/AP
A female toad carries a male toad on its back as it travels to a nearby pond to lay eggs.

The Weird Ways Animals Tell Us Spring Is Here

March 23, 2009 10:30 AM
by Haley A. Lovett
Whether it is toads blocking roads, salamander love songs, or a groundhog overcoming his shadow, many animals have unique ways of welcoming spring.

How Birds, Toads, Groundhogs and Salamanders Start Spring

Most people are familiar with the ritual of Groundhog Day; since 1887, every Feb. 2, Americans wait eagerly to learn if Punxsutawney Phil will see his shadow, which tells us if we’ll have six more weeks of winter, or if spring will come early. According to legend, Phil was chosen because he is the same groundhog used during the first Groundhog Day, and will live on forever.

Early February is between the Winter Solstice and the Vernal Equinox (the official start of spring), so it makes sense that we look to Phil for signs of spring around this time. This winter Phil saw his shadow, and let everyone know that six more weeks of winter was in store.

In Upper Roxborough, Pa., toads mark the beginning of spring by stopping traffic. Last year the Philadelphia neighborhood saw more than 100 American toads killed by passing cars as they tried to cross the road on their journey to find a mate. This spring the city will put up temporary detours so that the toads may cross in peace.

According to the Philadelphia Daily News, volunteers will patrol the roads in anticipation of the first migrating toads, and put up detour signs in hopes that more toads will cross successfully and the declining toad population will be stabilized.

In Green County, Ohio, students get to experience the beginnings of spring firsthand by watching salamanders mate in local vernal pools. The pools, which have no fish, can only exist in the right combination of warm and wet weather; when this happens at the beginning of spring, it is prime time for the once-a-year mating of salamanders. After spring, the pools dry up and the salamanders return to their burrows.

Bird watchers everywhere can tell you when it is spring by the sweet sound of birds chirping. Among the many bird signals that alert us to the arrival of spring are the hooting of owls and pecking of woodpeckers.

Background: Vernal equinox

In 2009 the first day of spring is officially March 20. But there was a time when spring began on March 21. Spring officially begins on the vernal equinox, and because that event is not a set date, but rather a position of the Earth relative to the sun, the date can change slightly due to Earth’s elliptical orbit, and because a calendar year isn’t exact according to Earth’s orbit.

Actually, the length of the seasons changes slightly every year due to small changes in the tilt of the Earth and in Earth’s orbit. Spring and winter each lose a little time each year—one minute and one half minute respectively—whereas summer and autumn gain a little time from those losses.

And, the name equinox is a bit misleading, because on the equinox the length of the day and night are not equal. Because of the size of the sun and the refraction of the sun’s light in the atmosphere, there is slightly more daylight than night on the vernal equinox.

Also, during some years, countries outside the United States will experience the vernal equinox on different days than the people in the United States.

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