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Six years ago I wrote about Groundhog Day and suggested that we change this early February day-of-prediction to focus not on an animal that is sound asleep in his grass-lined burrow dreaming of gardens to ravage, but instead that we look at an animal with whom we could more naturally base an ecologically or culturally significant day of hope for the coming spring.
I went through the cases for using a number of different species for our new holiday. Robins, for example, are the classical spring arrival species, but many of our Western Pennsylvania robins spend the winter locally in nearby refuges. On mild, sunny days throughout the winter flocks of robins drop into my yard and check out the leaf piles, but then they quickly depart especially if it starts snowing on them! With their sudden appearances and departures, robins might not be a reliable enough species on which to base our new holiday.
I also suggested that bumblebees might be an excellent indicator species in recognition of the early emergence of the hibernating queens and their remarkable ability to generate body heat and survive (usually) that initial cold flight of early spring. If we force the queen bumblebees out on early February flights, though, they probably would all freeze to death. Not a very happy thought for a day of celebration!
I also thought about scarlet tanagers as a species representing the long distance migrators that return to our northern habitats after a winter respite in South America. The scarlet tanagers, though, will not be around until April (much too late to get any publicity about the coming spring).
Someone last year suggested stink bugs emerging from their hibernation hideouts in our houses might be a “good” sign of spring. I am of the opinion, though, that stink bugs are not a “good” sign of anything and am not seriously considering that well intentioned but obviously misguided suggestion.
Taking all of this into consideration, I settled on what was, to me anyway, the most logical and most reliable and most available indicator species among us. That species, of course, is the housecat (Felis catus).
Cats are the most popular house pet in the United States (the Humane Society estimates that there 74 to 86 million house cats in the U.S. (as compared to “only” 70 to 78 million dogs)). As I wrote in my November 24, 2016 blog (“Our Other Best Friend”) cats have a complex relationship with humans and may be the only animal species that has chosen us as a co-evolutionary partner rather than vice-versa (hence the hypothesis that cats are not really domesticated at all but are wild animals exploiting our habitats and resources!). The resemblance of domesticated cats to their closely related wild species, the focus of many cats on places rather than people, and their perceived aloofness and self-absorption are factors that cause people to have intense feelings (both positive and negative) about cats.
A cat’s inherent love of sunshine and warmth, though, make them a perfect biological agent to help us predict the nearness of the coming warm seasons! And, since they are living in our houses year round, they are available for predictive experimentation!
So, six years ago on February 2, 2013 I took one of my cats, Mazie, out into the snow-covered front yard (I tried to take both of my cats, but Taz sensed that something was up and disappeared into one of her magical hiding places somewhere in the house). I put Mazie down in the yard (on a nice dry towel!), and left the front porch door open. If Mazie ran for the porch, then we would have six more weeks of winter. If she stayed on her towel or started walking around in the yard thus avoiding a dash back into the house, then spring was just around the corner.
I was amazed how fast she ran back into the house! But, that year the weather suddenly turned warm. March temperatures set record breaking highs (I even remember a day when it nearly got up to ninety degrees!). Maybe our predictive model was not articulated correctly.
In 2014 and 2015 I followed the same experimental procedure, and Mazie, as I reported on this blog, responded with equal speed and agility and got back into the house almost before Deborah could take the lens cap off of her camera. In both of these years winter hung on grimly well into March. Mazie’s predictions, then, fit the observed phenomenon.
In 2016, though, Mazie’s response to the front yard was entirely different. She stepped off her towel and explored the front flowerbed, jumped at some little Pardosa spiders that were running around in the grass and seemed to enjoy herself very much. The early onset of spring that this behavior predicted came about! We had a mild, pleasant March and April and eased our way into a warm, early summer.
In 2017 Mazie not only ran back into the porch but she headed straight for the basement and hid in a box in the furnace room for several hours! Her reaction, though, did not match the resulting weather as both February and March had average monthly highs of 66 and 67 degrees! Definitely an early (and sustained) Spring!
Last year (2018), Mazie ran from the cold and snow and predicted six more weeks of winter. The rest of February was a roller coaster of temperatures bouncing from the teens all the way to 77 degrees on Feb 20! March, then, was colder than February with quite a bit of snow. The month ended, though, with temperatures in the 60’s. Sounds like Mazie nailed her prediction again! Our grand-cats (Bella and Mora) in Denver were split on their predictions, and our cat reporters in California told us “what winter?”
So Mazie has been correct about the onset of Spring 4 out of 6 times! We’ll see how it goes this year!
Send on your own experiences and observations!
Happy Winter, everyone! (But, it’s almost time to start thinking about Spring!)
(House Cat Day 2019 is once again dedicated to Taz and Binx. They will be greatly missed forever!)