Spring: Yay! Season Creep: Not so Yay

Glorious Spring Bursts Forth! - Or more prosaically, a Minnesota maple tree buds in early March
I have a chicken run about a half-acre in size for my flock of twenty-some chickens.  It’s amazing how this handful of birds manages to peck the whole thing down to bare dirt by the end of the summer.  The whole run is shaded, so it’s not like it is thick with plants as it would be with full sun, but the chickens take care of the ferns and other shade tolerant plants that grow there in pretty short order.
This year my experiment is to plant a cover crop of oats in the run.  If I plant the oats early, they can get a running start before the trees leaf out, then somewhere around mid-May I’ll open the gate from the smaller run and the chickens can get into the big run and go crazy on the oats. 
So last weekend I spent a couple hours in the chicken run with a 50 pound bag of seed oats.  I hand cast the oats throughout the run and then raked the leaf litter around to cover the oats and hoped for the best.  It was a beautiful day to be outside – the thermometer topped out at 70, the chickadees were singing their spring song, and I could hear yellow bellied sap suckers hammering away somewhere off in the woods.  I stopped seeding oats to chat with my neighbor who was hauling buckets of maple sap down the hill from the trees he’s tapping on my property, and stopped again to watch a large flock of Sandhill cranes fly noisily overhead.  Then I went in the house and rewarded myself for my hard work with an entire box of Girl Scout cookies.  It’s the time of year for them as well, and I’m just a little addicted.  Once a box is opened I can’t stop until it’s gone.  Each cookie is pretty small, right?  And they just melt in your mouth.  I avoid looking at the nutritional information on the box.
All in all, it was a great day.  And yet, here’s why it was not great:  Seventy degrees in early March is unheard of here in the St. Croix Valley of Minnesota.  The average high for this time of year is the low forties.  We’ve been consistently breaking records for high temperatures.  The maple syruping season usually gets under way in mid-March.  This year it may be ending already.  My neighbor complained that it hasn’t been getting cold enough at night for the sap to run and he’s only had a few good days.  And the buds are already swelling on the trees, so even if the sap runs again, it will be past prime and will have an off taste.  The very fact that I’m seeding oats in early March is telling.  The USDA Agricultural Statistics Board lists the typical start date for planting oats in Minnesota as April 10, with the most active planting dates running from April 25 to May 14.  So while spring is always joyful, these early springs temper that joy.
Last year, of course, we had snow cover until April.  Maybe that will happen again next year and we’ll be hearing a lot of “told-you-so’s” from the climate change deniers.  Which is why climate scientists tell us it’s important to look at long term trends.
Phenologists, those folks who keep track of annual cycle events – when plants bloom, when birds migrate, and so on, refer to changes in the timing of the seasons as “season creep.”  It is a well-documented phenomenon.  According to US Geological Survey ecologist Jake Weltzin, “When you gather together all the scientific studies…we can see that about 80 percent of the species are changing earlier in the spring.”  This has been observed all over the world:  Cherries are blossoming earlier in Japan, northern hardwood forests are leafing out earlier and keeping their leaves longer, English oaks are producing acorns earlier, and ice is disappearing earlier from North American lakes.  All of this can lead to ecological catastrophe.  One example:   The English Oak, a ubiquitous and well-known tree in Britain, is leafing out earlier which means that the caterpillar of the Winter Moth is hatching earlier to feed on the leaves.  Pied Flycatchers, a bird that feeds largely on these caterpillars, are now arriving from their spring migration at a point when most of the caterpillars have already pupated into moths.  The Pied Flycatcher population has declined sharply.
And of course, in the larger picture, season creep is just one more indicator of global warming and all of its consequences:  Record hot and dry weather, drought, crop failures, dwindling water supplies, illness and death from heat-related health conditions, drowning polar bears, disappearing glaciers, rising oceans, flooded coastal areas, and extreme storms.
But as I stand in the chicken run and cast seeds to the earth, it is so hard to think of all of that.  The return of spring is something we all count on and anticipate year after year.  Our joy at the melting of the snow and the springing to life of the world around us is both primal and innate.  I can intellectually appreciate that this early spring is wrong.  But it is just like eating too many Girl Scout cookies – it’s bad, but it feels so good!

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