Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Harbingers...and Turdus migratorius

In my last long training run I did on Sunday for the Umstead 100 Mile Endurance Run, I was actually disappointed to see a harbinger of spring (note 1).

The harbinger was an American Robin (picture credit to Wikipedia)

Why was I disappointed?  See, this winter in the Keystone State has been butt-kicking. We are at or have surpassed our seasonal records for snow. And for the first time in my memory, I had not seen a robin in February....that is, until the very last day on my very last run. I was kinda hoping, I guess, that this winter's measure of severity would extend to and be represented by the postponed return until March of our most recognizable migratory bird.

I have always been amused by the scientific name of the robin: Turdus migratorius. Migrating sh*t, I guess? Not a very flattering name for such a fine bird (note 2)

I vividly recall my first ornithology course as an undergrad biology major at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. I was wandering the campus with by department-issued binoculars, and I heard a beautiful, sweet birdsong. I tracked the sound and homed in on it via the binoculars. What was producing the melodic, sweet, simple song? I was astounded to zoom in on an "ordinary" robin. These birds are so common as to be ubiquitous and almost under the radar (save in winter when everyone wants to see the first one to return from its southern migration). But can they sing!

It was a valuable lesson that the commonplace can also be extraordinary.

Note 1:  Can a harbinger be of something other than spring? I've only ever heard the word "harbinger" used in the context of spring.

Note 2:  Turdus actually means "thrush", and migratorius comes from migrare "to go".  But it's much more fun to think of turdus as sh*t, isn't it?

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