Opinion | Spring Now Comes With a Secret Dread

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By Verlyn Klinkenborg

Mr. Klinkenborg was a member of the Times editorial board from 1997 to 2013. He is the author of “Timothy: Or, Notes of an Abject Reptile” and teaches at Yale.

EAST CHATHAM, N.Y. — It’s always a relief when the swallows return. One day, they’re suddenly here, flickering around the house eaves, and whatever was waiting on them to begin — like spring — can now begin.

Same with the bobolinks, which return a little later. One day in early May the bumblebee-colored males are again fluttering over the fields, spilling their tangled song everywhere. It’s all so definite. No waiting for seeds to sprout or buds to burst, no wondering when the beech leaves will fill out. Suddenly there are birds, birdsong and bird flight where there was stillness.

It’s a relief, as I say, but it shouldn’t be a relief. And yet it is. For the last few springs, I’ve felt a secret dread that this might be the year the swallows and the bobolinks don’t return — that something might have gone wrong in their migration.

The barn swallows overwinter in Central and South America. And the bobolinks? They make a 12,500-mile round trip, over the Amazon and as far south as Paraguay. When they return — and I feel relieved — I realize that my conception of spring now depends on their entire migratory landscape, on how humans are altering bobolink-land, all the way from my field where they nest, at the northern end of their range, to the southernmost point of their route and back again.

Bobolinks have always been migrating long distances, and now that I live beside a field where they breed, I’m suddenly aware of it. What I’m also aware of now is the scale of change in the world these birds fly through — the shift in climate severity, in seasonal patterns, in land-use, in habitat destruction, in everything that can affect their survival. Their presence has extended my awareness into a world from which the birds return each spring, as if from peril.

Inevitably this makes me think of Gilbert White, the 18th-century Anglican clergyman who lived in the south of England and whose 1789 book, “The Natural History of Selborne,” has been called the first work of ecology. White was fascinated by the swallows in his village of Selborne, but he had no idea what became of them in winter. There were many theories, including hibernation, but no sure knowledge. “After all our pains and inquiries,” White wrote, “we are not yet quite certain to what regions they do migrate; and are still farther embarrassed to find that some do not actually migrate at all.”

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