Early March is always a time of keen transition in our part of the world. The cliches about “in like a lion, out like a lamb” seldom hold true in black and white. Furthermore, as a distance runner for more than forty years, I’ve been coddled by lions and stomped by lambs.
Only one thing holds pure and true in the month of March. That is when the blackbirds return. The call of a red-winged blackbird from a fencepost or an overhead wire is a sure enough sign of spring that one can let down ever so slightly.
These are hardy birds, mind you. They frequently fly through snowstorms to get here in Illinois by early March. And what’s the rush? Well, the males want to be ready and on territory by the time the weather actually shifts, typically in late March or early April. Until then, it’s a back and forth process with blackbirds setting up shop on suitable breeding grounds only to flock back together when the weather turns bitter cold again.
Their survival instincts tell them when to turn on the hormones and when to shut them off. Birds in a flock depend on a collective wisdom assembled through millions of years of evolution. The birds we see today are the product of the survivors of experiments in feeding and breeding. Any fatal instinct or turn of bad luck weeds out individuals that don’t get to pass on their breeding stock from one generation to the next.
Weeding out the weak
It’s a whittling process, much like the manner in which the pace of a race weeds out the slower competitors until but a few remain. And as numerous as blackbirds can be in some areas, they still constitute the tip of a spear that goes back millions of years. This is what’s so insulting about the notion that all this nature we can witness is the result of some slapdash effort by God to toss it together in a few days. That worldview places human beings at the top of the order and dumps the rest into some weaker category of existence. But it’s not true. Every living thing we see on this earth is a massively refined product of time and yes, of tradition.
That’s why birds of feather flock together. It’s tradition that keeps birds and all living things alive. It may not be cognizant tradition in the manner of which we’re accustomed to thinking, but it is tradition just the same.
The other way around
If anything it is humans who imitate nature, not the other way around. Those running routes we established in college all had names. We branded them after landmarks found along the way. Thus one of our favorite running routes in college was named Wonder Left after the sign for the Wonder Cave billboard at the counter corner of Route 52 and Meadowlark Lane north of Decorah, Iowa.
We’d proceed from campus up the long hill out of the valley and typically face a north wind in the spring season. There was nothing blocking that wind for another 500 miles north. It was all low hills and cornfields from us to the Boundary Waters in northern Minnesota.
The wind would roar in our ears as we plied our way through it. Yet somewhere along the way, I’d hear the sound of a red-winged blackbird calling from a wire. And I’d think, “This is only temporary.”
Typically, it was. Yet some springs winter would hold on well into April. Which drove us to manic lengths trying to fix our hopes on some day to come where we could actually run outside in shorts, not baggy sweats. One chill April day that was marginal enough that we could actually run in shorts in the high forties or low fifties, some at the back of the pack started up a chant, “The weather sucks! We want spring!”
This went on for a mile or two before we arrived back on campus so sick of the damp air that someone stopped and yanked off their shorts and ran past the whole team. That pair of pale butt checks set off a springtime alarm of sorts. We all stripped naked and held our running stuff in our hands to gather at the door of the college union. Then on the count of three, we all spilled into the cafeteria stark naked and running in a furious clambering line. “The weather sucks! We want spring!”
He who hesitates is lost
But one guy hesitated back at the door. He was twenty yards behind when he finally decided to make a break for it and follow us naked through the cafeteria. Big mistake. Once the crowd inside the cafeteria was warned, a few football players or some other gathering of big guys was ready for the next wave if it was going to come. They leapt up and grabbed our teammate and tied him to a post with his own clothes. He was a shy dude by nature, you see, so that had to be agony.
Years later our little Luther College became known for a ritual called Naked Soccer . The whole notion makes me very proud of my alma mater. Granted, it was probably snuffed out, a sign that the administration feared the seemingly inevitable incident of raw sexual harassment or worse. But I still don’t believe that getting naked is, on its own, a true crime.
Butt cheeks on patrol
It was the right thing to do back when the weather simply wouldn’t cooperate, and our little band of blackbirds was sick of migrating through the chill of March. Now that butt cheeks are far more common in the public eye, the only thing scandalous about the notion is the exposure of a penis or two. And in the case of men, that generally turns out to be a shrunken proposition when the air is cool.
But we did have one teammate that simply couldn’t run naked due to the fact that he was simply too well-endowed. That made it even funnier to most of us when he had to stick with his jock when the rest of us were stark naked.
Such are the antics and traditions of men and blackbirds. Driven by hormones against the raging spring winds, some of us show our epaulettes while others have to keep them under cover. Nature is a patient teacher however, willing to wait out the vagaries of all this behavior to find out who really wants to survive, and why.