What Are the First Signs of Spring?

The Glorious Harbingers That Tell Us, "Winter Is Over"

Pussy willow catkins (image) are symbolic of spring. They're in the Salix genus.
Pussy willow catkins are iconic symbols of early spring. David Beaulieu

If, like me, you live in a cold climate, you probably share a certain wintertime habit with me. Call it escapism, call it one of the ways to beat the winter blues, or call it just plain impatience. I'm talking about visualizing those first signs of spring that are so dear to us. Both the plant and animal kingdoms send forth harbingers annually that either signal the demise of Old Man Winter or, at the very least, signal that he is quite long in the tooth.

In this article I, along with numerous readers of my About.com Landscaping site, relate what some of these glorious signs are, according to the region in which we live (I'm a New Englander, myself).

I have spoken elsewhere about the earliest spring bloomers among my landscape plants. Some of the first to bloom are:

As if these precocious landscape plants didn't cheer me up enough, there's also the return of the wild plants to which I look forward so ardently. Depending upon where you live, the spring woodland vegetation to which you are treated may vary from mine. But here are some of the beauties I dream about every year on cold winter days:

    And who could leave out pussy willows in this connection, even though, technically, I wouldn't call them one of the first signs of spring? The furry catkins on these beloved wild plants can actually form long before spring. But they come along in greater numbers in spring -- thus their strong association with this season of rebirth.

    And let's not forget the spring harbingers among the wildlife population. Certain types of birds are the most noticeable harbingers of spring, because they fly around just about everywhere, making them hard to miss. I keep an eye out for the red-wing blackbirds every year as a sign that spring is on its way.

    But don't forget the smaller creatures that signal spring's return. They go unnoticed by the bulks of the human population, but I'm rather partial to salamanders, myself, particularly the spotted salamanders. As the earth thaws, they are sprung from the subterranean prison cells that hold them for the winter. For eons, they have been emerging from the mud of March and April on their annual evening treks to vernal mating pools. Okay, so it doesn't have the raw energy of the Running of the Bulls in Pamplona. For some, viewing the salamanders will be classified as a "little thing," about as exciting as watching grass grow. But their methodical march shouts "spring" to me. And call me crazy, but I say nothing about the return of spring is "little."

    Ever the optimist, I check for the presence of these secretive amphibians as soon as there is just a hint of spring in the air and am often too early; nature teaches us to be patient, but I'm a poor student.

    In the process of checking, however, sometimes I stumble upon another harbinger, instead. Snow fleas (Hypogastrura nivicola)  may not be much to look at, but listening to a chorus of spring peepers is heavenly.

    "If I could save time in a bottle...." As a lover of early spring, I would follow up Jim Croce's famous conditional clause with "I would stuff as much of March and April as possible into that bottle."

    For one thing, spring brings numerous changes to the landscape and forest -- and I want to witness and revel in each and every one of them. The new growing season has been born, and its first baby steps are too precious to miss. The whole spectacle passes too quickly, for my tastes. I wish there were a way to slow it down, so that I could have more time to savor it.

    That's why one of my many pet names for spring is "the overwhelming season." Don't assume that this adjective implies negativity.

    If someone gave you a million dollars, you'd be overwhelmed, wouldn't you? And it's in this positive sense that I find spring overwhelming.

    It's not enough for me to look out the window one day and see that my snowdrops are in bloom. I want to be there when they first push through the ground. I want to be there when the first distinct white "drops" form on them. And yes, I want to be there for the grand finale, when those drops fully open. But being satisfied merely with viewing this grand finale is rather like settling for walking in on a movie that's almost over. I paid the admission price (in this case, enduring the long winter), and I want to get my money's worth.

    It's insane, I know. But aren't all great loves insane? Multiply this insanity by X (where X stands for the number of plants you have in your yard), and you can see how busy spring can keep a person who really loves it. Of course, besides admiring our gardens this time of year, they also demand some spring cleaning, for which we need to set aside additional time.

    There's another factor not to be underestimated when accounting for the overwhelming effect spring has on me. I'm talking about when a heavenly warm day arrives, out of the blue. After suffering through so much cold during the winter, the juxtaposition is rather jarring -- in a good way.

    A warm day in early spring is not like a warm day in summer. By summer, we expect it and may even be looking forward to a cooling period. But when such a day arrives in March, the true connoisseur of spring searches desperately for an excuse to play hooky from work. Duty may be calling where you work, but the call of all these vernal Pied Pipers -- the first signs of spring -- tears you in the other direction. Where landscape plants or wild plants, whether birds, bugs or amphibians, they  are bound to win out in that contest: their call is too alluring.

    Reader Reports From Around the World

    Knowing that many of my readers share my enthusiasm for spring, I asked them to report on the first signs of spring that they witness in their own regions.

    Here are some of the answers I received:

    First Signs of Spring in Virginia/Washington, D.C.

    Reader, Double Bogie counted 13 robins on a golf course March 22, 2012. For another, it's seeing an osprey that always marks the occasion (and one did, indeed, arrive on March 5). Faithful reader, Shelby24019 is another Virginian; she agrees that the return of the robins is the first sign of spring, with crocus and daffodil significant indicators, as well.

    First Plants of Spring, Pennsylvania

    One PA reader reported observing "a bunny out in the snow, hedges are starting to leaf out, birds happy and heard a dove (one of the first to nest) this morning."

    First Sign of Spring in South Carolina

    This reader knows it's time when the bees are buzzing, trees in full bloom, temperatures in high 80's, warning, "We'll still have some cool evenings, though, until Easter."

    Report From New Zealand

    Here's how Sharyn Smith of New Zealand knows when springtime has come: "When it gets warmer and you don't have to stick a bunch of clothes on each day just to go outside. It's not dark when you wake up."

    The First Signs of Spring in Florida

    This season, so special to those of us who live in cold climates, may not be as big a deal in Florida, but that doesn't mean its return goes unnoticed. Reader, S58wish looks for the Daytona 500 and Daytona Bike Week, followed by Spring Break. Another Floridian writes, "Originally from Washington, DC, I've lived in Florida 59 years now....Here, I learned 'Spring has sprung, the grass is RIZE, I wonder where the robins IS?' And they have been here in Central FL since last week. Azaleas are beginning to bloom, maple trees leafing out, butterflies busy checking out the weeds, birds starting nests, sun with its warm days staying 'lit up' and breezy and LIFE CONTINUING."

    Reports From Texas 

    Lynn points to bluebonnets, along with sightings of the first pedal pushers. Lorraine concurs on the first point, calling Texas bluebonnets "the official sign of spring." She adds, "In Texas we do not have 4 seasons that last the normal length, so we take what we can get."

    Some who wrote in from Texas specified their location in more detail, including one dwelling in the Texas panhandle (Amarillo) who eagerly awaits sightings of robins.

    In South Central Texas, Alma cites as "one of the first (although unwelcome) signs of spring" the re-emergence of that bane of many a gardener's existence, stinging nettle! "More welcome are, first, the 'canary birds,' sometimes called scrambled eggs. Next will come the phlox and Indian paint brushes, then the wonderful bluebonnets, our state flower. The sure sign that spring is here to stay, though, is the leafing out of the mature mesquite trees. Young ones are not always so wise, and sometimes jump the gun, but I am 79 and have not seen a mature mesquite freeze yet! In wildlife I watch for the return of the purple martins and their graceful aerial dances. But most of all I watch for the migration of the hummingbirds. Some stay here year round, but the masses that pass through spring and fall are such a delight."

    Ron Knight, in west Texas, also cites mesquite as the first sign of spring for Texans.

    Connecticut Reader Trusts Cardinal Over Groundhog

    Over 2 feet of snow on the ground in SW Connecticut -- the groundhog's prediction? -- yeah, right! Two weeks later, a cardinal's bubbly song told me it was so!

    A Little Bird Told Me: Spring Is Coming to Michigan

    Kim, a Michigan reader, takes her cues from activity around the bird feeder, especially the red-wing black birds. Lynda T. is of a like mind but cites four harbingers of spring (three of them winged): robins, crocus, cardinals, and finches.

    First Signs of Spring in Flagstaff, Arizona

    To reader, mcbrecycle, "The most obvious sign is the trees starting to form buds, but just the other day and again today I noticed that the flocks of Canadian geese that inhabit our golf course lakes are gone! Usually there are HUNDREDS if not thousands across the closed fairways throughout the winter, but for several days now I haven't seen a one! They must be headed back to Canada for warmer weather!"

    Goldfinch Coloration, Robins, Snowdrops and More in Canada

    Speaking of Canada, Anne reports from southern Ontario, where "goldfinches at the feeder are already showing more yellow on their throats and shoulders. Snowdrops were up a few inches between Christmas and New Year, back under a foot of snow now but I know they're there!"

    Raki of S.W. Ontario, Canada looks for "overly-eager Canadians wearing shorts on 12 degree C. days! We take the first feeble spring rays of sunshine as the harbinger of full-blown spring!"

    Valerie provides more evidence of spring from this Canadian province. "We leave our Christmas decorations up until we smell spring. We live on the Trent River in Frankford, Ontario and are very isolated, as we live in a cottage country by ourselves until spring. It is very quiet here in the winter so we notice when things start to change...the sunset, the birds and all the wildlife. There is a different feeling as we get closer to spring. It's hard to explain, but the days are longer, the sun is out just a bit more and as my Dad always said "once December is over, you're halfway to spring".

    Clara Cormier, of New Brunswick, Canada, knows that the return of robins signals spring. Meanwhile, in Newfoundland, the time tells DM Fagan that it's time. Huh? Well, it's all about Daylight Savings Time. DM quips, "The first sign of spring here in Newfoundland is the time going ahead one hour which is just fabulous and I know then that whatever cold or snow we get from here on in will only stay for a few days." A somewhat artificial sign, DM, but we'll take it!

    First Signs of Spring (Flora, Fauna) in North Carolina

    "First, I look for the wild birds (we feed about 15 different kinds in our backyard feeders) to start to pair up for mating season, " says Marie. "The robins arrived here in North Carolina about 3 weeks ago. In plant life, I have daffodil plants poking the heads of their green leaves through the ground -- they are about 3 inches high already! And the crocus plants are poking up out of the ground also."

    Springtime in New Hampshire

    Reports Annette, "The first sign of spring here in New Hampshire is when the crocuses pop up through snow and/or the spring peepers are singing."

    First Signs of Spring in New York

    Tulips pop up on Park Ave, in New York City, according to Marcie. "In Orange County, NY, the buds on the trees are swollen. Spring is surely on the way!"

    Robin Redbreast Brings Hopeful Sign of Spring to Midwest

    "In the Midwest we are in the middle of a blizzard that has dropped anywhere from 8-30 inches of snow in this area," states LindaMarieR. "In the middle of all of this there was a robin at one of my bird feeders! I am hoping this means spring is somewhere close by, waiting to pop up when the snow is all gone!"

    Reliable Robins, Hummingbirds, Daffodils in Georgia

    A robin has been coming to Donna's backyard in Atlanta for eight years to announce spring.

    Barbara Philips is a transplant. Born in England, she now resides in Atlanta. She reports that snowdrops (which are a great harbinger of spring in the North) don't grow well for her there. But daffodils do, and she treats their appearance as the first sign of spring.

    Linda Lovett lives in southern Georgia. Robins bear the good news for her. "When I see them, I know it's time for the daffodils to open up. The next sign is the beautiful hummingbirds. I look forward to these signs every year and can't wait to get in my gardens. I hate winter. I'm a spring and summer girl; like to have my hands in the dirt."

    Springtime in Ohio Is Magical With Wild Plants, Forsythia

    "Here in Ohio," remarks BCW44, "I first see my Magic lilies pop through the ground in early March. Next I will be looking for red and white Trilliums and bloodroot."

    Euell Gibbons (not the Euell Gibbons, of course!) writes, "We live in Ohio, and it is always a big boost to see the forsythias come out in bloom in April. It really shakes us out of the winter doldrums to see their plentiful golden flowers smiling at us, displayed on such gracefully arching branches. When we see the forsythias, we know spring has arrived!"

    Hold the Beans: It's All About the Spring Ephemerals in Boston

    Boston is affectionately known as "Beantown," but residents looking for the first signs of spring have no interest in beans. Reader, sephemeral keeps an eye peeled for skunk cabbage and hazelnut catkins, and an ear tuned in to the song of the spring peepers. If you don't know much about the latter, read what another respondent has to say on the subject: "When the spring peepers begin to sing in the pond behind our house, I know it is finally spring. These little tree frogs usually begin to wake up and "sing" to attract a mate at the very end of March or the first days of April. It is a wonderful sound that I wait to hear every year after winter!"

    Nuts About Spring in Louisiana

    "I know when spring is here (Louisiana) when the pecan trees start blooming. Then I know I am safe for planting my vegetable garden and enjoying the outside," observes darlene1958. Her observation is confirmed by Twink: "In southern Louisiana, we anxiously await the buds on our pecan trees as a sure sign that Spring is here. They are always the last to appear.

    True and Sure Signs of Spring in Minnesota

    For a poetic take on the first signs of spring, we turn to rosallind (Arden Hills, MN): "Birds exploring the horizon, boats sailing away engulfed by the gentle wind, the discovery of new life in nature and dreams come true. Yes. Welcome, spring!"

    Snowdrops Dropping in Wisconsin

    Reporting from another cold Midwestern state, Susan Greentree points to Galanthus blooming through the snow as a sure indicator.

    Early Sign of Spring in Illinois: Blush on the Elms

    Still sticking to the same region (northern Illinois, near Lake Michigan), Mary Moring says, "Yes, the glorious song of the cardinals is a sign, but also the slight red blush on the elm trees as the buds begin to swell and cast fuller shadows on the snow -- when there's enough sun, that is."

    Signs That Spring Rescue Is Imminent in Nebraska

    A little farther west (central Nebraska), TeresaKayKay takes the Audubon approach to determining when spring's on the way. "Although the weather may not seem any different, when we hear the spring cries of geese, ducks, and sandhill cranes, and see the reappearance of robins, then we start to hope. Then we once more believe that it's gonna happen. That once more we will see green. That we will be warm. That we will once more see our neighbors."

    Hummingbirds One of First Signs of Spring in Colorado

    Going still a little farther west, Dan Lewis asks, "What about the hummingbirds? In Washington State they arrive in March, here in Colorado it's April. They're wonderful little people just buzzing around looking for a chance meal of sugar from those early flowers or a fill up from someone's feeder."

    A Magical Time in the San Francisco Bay Area

    Now we've made it all the way to the West Coast, where local flora serves as the chief harbingers in the minds of those who reported. "It's usually February, in San Francisco Bay Area, The city of San Mateo, that I look for little buds on all trees, from the Japanese coral barks, to plums, to my camellias," writes Nami. "Within days the Plums set in bloom, but takes longer for the Japanese maples' buds to open in leaves. The hills are green at this time, when we have the rains pouring. It is magical!"

    Adam Suval states that "the signs that spring is coming soon, in San Francisco, are when the cherry and plum tree flowers start to open. Also, when my roses' side buds start to open and shoot out new growth."

    Still in Northern California (Carlota, "which is just a barbecue restaurant and post office, tucked in the hills"), Bob Stanley (not the ex-Red Sox pitcher, I assume!) seeks trilliums in the redwood forest. "Like wild Easter lilies, they cover the forest floor. And of course, the song of the tree frogs singing in the pond at night." And Lina reports, "My Japanese maple trees are leafing out and I'm seeing a flower bud or two on my peony trees."

    Rounding Out Our Reports (From Locations Unknown):

    It's Spring When...

    The Buffalo Currant blooms with little yellow tubes and a strong clove fragrance, accompanied by the little Winter Aconites in matching hues, followed by any snow crocus in a sheltered spot.

    —chunkycrone

    Two False Starts and the Real Thing

    First the birds are singing in the morning, which is a good sign, but we're not quite there yet. Then the robins arrive -- but it can go either way. When the red-wing blackbirds are out, then it is spring.

    —Guest Kittykatzmeow

    1st Signs of Spring

    I love the first snowdrops. I love the birds singing in the morning. I love waking up with my children and it is light outside.

    —barbara1974

    Peeking Through the Leaves

    The timid plant stems poke through the bed of leaves and call for the sunshine. Slowly and daily they gather their bravado and sing silently to the air, through signs of color, and say...Spring is here!

    —Guest Eva

    First Signs of Spring

    We have SUNSHINE! And crocuses, and baby daffodils. We went for a walk in a famous garden, and the wind had blown down branches; I brought some home to put in water, and they are beginning to leaf out, like when you force forsythia. So excited to see what they will be, and maybe I will be able to take some cuttings.

    —Guest nufty

    The True First Sign of Spring

    When I see a red-wing blackbird, I know spring is coming.

    —Guest scott

    Robins a Sign That Spring Is Coming

    Hi, it's Valerie again. On Thursday, there were 5 fat birds flying from tree to tree and eating whatever they could find on the branches. It took a few minutes before I realized they were robins. What a sight to see them! Spring is coming!

    —Guest Valerie

    First Signs of Spring!

    It's when I see my first Robin Red Breast looking for food! Seeing one of these birds lets me know spring is here. The birds singing in the morning. Everyone is glad winter is finally over.

    —Guest Jolyn

    First Sign of Spring: Hydrangea Buds

    The first sign of spring for me is a pink hydrangea shrub that starts opening its blooms mid January. Shortly after this the snowdrops and crocuses start blooming in my garden.

    —edandmill

    The Truly First Sign of Spring Is...

    When the crocus poke their beautiful little heads through the snow and blossom. There is nothing like the delicate lavender and yellow bursting through the snow crystals...it's breath-taking.

    —Guest Penny

    First Signs of Spring: Weeping Willows

    When I'm going around and I see the Weeping Willows starting to change color.

    —Guest Jimmy Packes

    Tried and True First Sign of Spring

    When my cats start shedding heavily, then I know it will be about 2 weeks until the cold weather breaks. It is an unfailing sign for me.

    —BrucesMom

    Galanthus

    Spring is the joyous and carefree renew of life. It brings us flowers, green grass, laughter and love. Winter is the mercilessly controlled indoors environment that brings out confusion and anxiety. The first signs of Spring unveil the resilient spirit of nature with the Galanthus blooming through the snow.

    —Guest Mei

    Awaiting Spring Veggies

    To me the most exciting first sign of spring are artichokes!

    —Guest Bloomy Goody

    Honk if You Love Spring!

    When the river floods in our back yard, due to the snow melts, and the honk of the geese as they search for a spring mate.

    —Guest Trisha

    First Signs of Spring

    The first signs of spring are the plants budding out, the bluebirds nesting, the finches are bright yellow right before they go back up north and it is getting to be beautiful -- non-humid warm weather. Love it.

    —Guest Ilene

    Smelly First Sign of Spring

    My first sing of spring is the scent of the skunk.

    —Guest Judith Lembree

    Spring Is...

    Melting snow, burning less wood, finding out which plants made it through the winter, water in the basement. Then there's my favorite: the name of my town is Pottawatami, Indian for "knee deep in mud," which usually happens in spring.

    —Guest garden nut

    LaVerne Sighting

    My next door neighbor, LaVerne, retreats inside her house in late October and re-emerges sometime in March, April. Her sighting is my first sign of spring. This year it was Friday, March 5, 2:44pm CST...she walked out onto her deck.

    —Guest Big K

    What I Look for in Spring

    The first thing I usually look for in spring after the snow melts are the points of my spring bulbs breaking the soil. Next I look forward to seeing all the white Trillium in the woods.

    —riverwmn

    First Signs of Spring With Some Melancholy Mixed In

    The birds in the morning, making a lovely racket and the peepers at night, sad but they remind me of when my Dad passed. He loved spring, and St. Patrick's Day was always his favorite day (him being Irish and all that). He would plant his potato starters......we never really had any potatoes to boast about but who cares?

    —Guest Karen

    Daffy for Daffodils

    Daffodils blooming means spring is near. Then all-of-a-sudden, you realize it's finally light in the morning! Love springtime!

    —Guest Debbie

    Go, Buckeyes!

    In this area, the first sign of spring is when we notice that the local buckeye trees are starting to grow leaves. The second sign is when we notice that this year's daffodils are breaking through the soil. By mid-March, people's yards are sprayed with daffodil blooms. Hills and Fields are turning green and the water runoff is filling the creeks and streams. Robins are back and all the birds are now thinking about building a nest. They're all inspecting all my birdhouses trying to decide which one they'll occupy this year.

    —Guest Dan V.

    The First Signs of Spring

    I love spring, when the cardinals are singing. A walk around my yard provides me with the first colors from the crocus, with the tulips and daffodils peeping through the dirt. The buds are on my peony tree. My lenten rose and my cyclamen are also showing vigorous growth. This is my favorite time of year!

    —Guest carriekeck1502

    What Signs of Spring I Have Found

    Tulip bulbs, daylillies and iris are coming up. Robins were in the yard last week. And the crows are being very noisy. The birds are chattering.

    —Guest tootsieroll60

    First Signs of Spring Are...

    When I see robins, and tulips forcing their way through the frozen ground, and the squirrels running around having fun.

    —Guest luvlove7

    First Signs of Spring in the South

    Waves of yellow jonquils, flowering forsythias, and a forest with trillium tell me spring is almost here.

    —Guest Catherine J

    Signs and Songs of Spring

    My first sign is always the early robins who come to ravage whatever berries are left on various bushes. And this song: Pussy Willows, Cat-Tails.

    —Guest Suzanne

    Even Mud Has Its Good Side

    Oh how I used to HATE mud until I decided to look at it as a sign of SPRING!

    —Guest Millie

    First Sign of Spring: Cardinals Sing!

    Cardinals are here all winter long, but they are silent until they know spring is coming. When I hear the first cardinal singing gloriously, I know spring is truly on the way. Haven't heard them yet this year...

    —Guest Marcia Purse