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The return of the snowbirds

Florida is a common spot for snowbird migration.
Liz Lerner
Florida is a common spot for snowbird migration.

Over the past few weeks our local snowbirds have been returning from their annual winter sojourns in the south. Every winter they leave the Cape and fly hundreds, even thousands of miles, to winter in Florida, Arizona, Texas, Puerto Rico, Mexico, Ecuador, and other points south. Some Cape snowbirds show a particular attraction to specific locations: Viegas, Matalan, San Miguel, Siesta Key, Tucson, Tampa. On their return north, our local snowbirds are accompanied by other species with similar migration patterns: red-wing blackbirds, green herons, broad-winged hawks, ospreys, tree swallows, house wrens, wood thrushes, and a dozen or more species of warblers and sparrows.

You won’t find our snowbirds in the standard bird guides, for they are, of course, “birds” only in the metaphorical sense. “Snowbirds” is the common nickname given to human residents who travel south during the winter months. They generally leave shortly after the New Year and return three or four months later.

Never having been a snowbird myself, I’m curious about their motivations for these annual southern migrations. Most cite their desire to be in warmer climes, though with modern insulation and efficient heating systems, it is not difficult to stay warm on the Cape in the winter. Some snowbirds say they look forward to meeting and making new friends. This strikes me as more authentic, since, like their true avian counterparts, once they reach their winter terminus, snowbirds shed their plumage and adopt the look, food, language, and songs of their winter environs. Over time, if they winter in the same place every year, they may come to feel that they have even become part of a new community.

“South,” after all, is a flexible term, whose meaning depends on where one lives. I once asked my friend Penny, who lives in Newfoundland, if people there migrate south in the winter.

“Oh, yes,” she said. “Many Newfoundlanders go to Halifax.” Ah yes, Halifax, that balmy capital of Nova Scotia.

On those rare occasions when Chum and I have left the Cape in winter, it is usually only for short periods, usually no more than a week. And when we do, we almost always head not south, but north – to Maine, Vermont, or Montreal. Ah, Montreal! For my money, there is no more beautiful or intriguing city in winter than Montréal, which has been described as the only truly European city in North America. With its bilingual culture, French cuisine, and its remarkable array of underground “places,” which form a series of connected underground mini-cities, one can experience all the amenities of a large city in comfortable, well-lit surroundings.

I don’t want to sound condescending about my partiality for the north in winter. Unlike Garrison Keillor’s repeated assertion that winters in Minnesota build character, I claim no moral virtue for my predilection for northern winter landscapes. In my case it is simply a matter of personal preference. In any case, the debate may soon be moot. The way things are going climate-wise, it may not be long before we can all “go south” for the winter without actually leaving our Cape Cod homes, at which point we may all come to bemoan the absence of true winter.

A nature writer living in Wellfleet, Robert Finch has written about Cape Cod for more than forty years. He is the author of nine books of essays. A Cape Cod Notebook airs weekly on WCAI, the NPR station for Cape Cod, Martha's Vineyard, Nantucket, and the South Coast. In both 2006 and 2013, the series won the New England Edward R. Murrow Award for Best Radio Writing.