by Brendan McGarry
– For The Capitol Hill Times –
A reactionary response to the word phenology isn’t unreasonable. The word is awfully close to phrenology, the study of measurements of the human skull and the inference to the brain’s capabilities, a strange pseudoscience commonly used to support prejudiced beliefs. Phenology is the study of life cycles of living things.
The beauty of phenology is simplicity. One does not have to be a professional naturalist or even an expert to follow the patterns. Do plants in your neighborhood sprout leaves and flowers? It’s easy enough to pay attention when they bud and bloom, when petals fall and fall color arrives. That’s all phenology. I’ve spent a good portion of my life following such events, many haven’t. Yet, such things are inherent to understanding the natural world (even if you live in the city).
In the lowland Pacific Northwest, despite our latitude of 47 degrees, we don’t spend winters cringing under mounds of snow. In February, when much of the U.S. is still enveloped, our resident species are stirring. Maybe it’s not spring, despite the brilliant glowing orb that appeared in the sky this past week, but you might notice a few changes.
Being a birder, I gravitate towards the happenings of birds. Most aren’t shy about announcing things if you know what to look for. However, plants offer plenty of note and they stay still.
Recently, while biking up one of our ubiquitous hills, I caught a bit of pink out of the corner of my eye. Being easily distracted, I stopped to investigate. The pink was from the buds of one of our early blooming natives, red-flowering currant (Ribes sanguinium), also one of the harbingers of arriving rufous hummingbirds. More likely than not this was an early bloomer; I know rufous hummingbirds are still in repose in Mexico (don’t get it confused, Anna’s hummingbirds are here in abundance year-round). We had a mild winter, this wasn’t absolutely crazy, but of note.
I kept pedaling, dreaming of a land without hills, noticing more blooms. This time it wasn’t from a native plant, but another early bloomer. Snowdrops (a bulb, genus Galanthus) have readily naturalized here, contentedly spreading as they would have in Europe. Their common name tells a tale twofold, they have dainty white flowers that appear in winter.
It being a fairly nice day out, I thought I’d spend a moment perusing some birds nearby. Cruising down toward the Washington Park Arboretum I heard some shy whisperings from a stretch of uncultivated green. In a larger stretch there were quite a few talkative individuals.
In our region we have a few birds that sing year round. Song sparrows (Melospiza melodia) and Pacific wrens (Troglodytes pacificus) are common ones. There’s a strong chance that you’ve heard one of these singing as you walked through a park. However, since they always sing, you can’t glean any phenological information off of them, right? Actually, you can. As the days lengthen, singing ramps up. You may hear a half-hearted sputter from a song sparrow in January, but come April, he’s hopped up on hormones and singing away all morning.
All organisms make mistakes. It’s not unusual to see plants budding too soon because of a warm spell. Male birds can get enthusiastically wound up in singing on a bright sunny morning in January. So maybe the things I noted are just accidents. However, if you think about it, these species have seen thousands of years of ups and downs. They wouldn’t cut it if they mistakenly put too much energy into a push for the breeding season because of a few warms days. How do they know when to really start?
Anyone notice the days getting longer? Maybe not, but birds, plants, and insects all have. Even when it’s a cruddy, soggy, frigid day and you can’t fathom being outside, the length of the days are increasing to the summer equinox. From the beginning of the year to this week we’ve gotten nearly two more hours of light between sunrise and sunset. Of course plants and animals don’t consciously sit counting, waiting for the right amount of daylight. Simplistically, their cells (and ours) react according to Circadian rhythms (a topic unto itself), relating daylight and temperature that dictates their behaviors and growth. Sometimes I’ve pondered whether life would be easier if people were more tied into their Circadian rhythms.
Phenology is really just about paying attention. A naturalist’s job is to think about these things and while we don’t always explicitly call it as such, we’re always studying phenology. Pay a little attention and I expect you’ll start to notice things too.