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Wild Side: Phenology has gone wild this spring

A flowing dry run in our woods on April 19. Dan Wilcox photo.

T.S. Elliot's poem, The Waste Land, starts, "April is the cruelest month...stirring dull roots with spring rain."

Elliot borrowed that theme from the first line of Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales (translated from Old English), "When April with his showers sweet; The drought of March has pierced unto the root; And bathed every vein with such liquor; Of which virtue engendered is the flower."

March and April around here have certainly been cruel this year.

Our April showers haven't been sweet. Instead they were bouncing with sleet. The morning of Friday, April 19, looked like January outside with four inches of new wet snow. The nighttime temperature got down to 18 degrees.

We pity the snowbirds that returned too early from warmer climes. In the last several weeks, we've seen killdeers, woodcocks, crested mergansers, wood ducks, mallards, blue-winged teal, sandhill cranes, great blue herons, red-winged blackbirds, robins, bluebirds, and phoebes arrived only to be socked in with more snow. Wild turkey toms were gobbling a couple weeks ago but have recently lost their ardor.

The first month of meteorological spring this year has been unseasonably cold across our region. Air temperatures in West-Central Wisconsin have been nearly eight degrees below the 1981-2010 daily averages for March and April. Our daily high temperatures have barely exceeded 50 degrees so far this year. In 2012, we enjoyed 80 degrees on St. Patrick's Day.

Phenology is the study of the relationship between plant growth and animal life and physical factors of the environment, particularly climate and weather. Wisconsin has a long tradition of phenology observations. Aldo Leopold, UW-Madison professor and author of "A Sand County Almanac," kept phenological records at the Leopold family "Shack" on the Wisconsin River starting in 1935. The Leopold family has accumulated over 70 years of records of migrating bird arrivals, wildlife activities and flowering plants.

There's an abundance of evidence that the seasonal timing of spring events in Wisconsin, such as ice-out on lakes, arrival of migrating birds, and plant flowering has advanced two to three weeks in time since Aldo Leopold's days and that these shifts are related to climate change. Plants and animals are dependent on environmental conditions favorable for reproduction and growth. When their biological activities occur outside the windows of favorable conditions, there are consequences.

For example, the early warm-up in March last year triggered many trees, including our cherry and apple trees, to bloom only for the flowers to be killed by a later frost. This year, the late warm-up may have caused many returning migrating birds to arrive in the snow, starve or return south. Birds that have had their northward migrations and feeding delayed by snow cover are burning up energy in stored fat and may have reduced reproductive success.

Fortunately spring will arrive. Farmers are raring to go but need warmer soil temperatures for planting. Drought conditions are expected to improve in Wisconsin during spring, according to forecast models from the NOAA Climate Prediction Center. We look forward to the snow disappearing, for things to green up and for the birds to sing their spring songs.

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