Blackfoot Valley Dispatch - The Blackfoot Valley's News Source Since 1980

The birds of spring, a harbinger of summer


March 13, 2019

This last siege of storms has made for long winter. The snow is welcome, but it may delay spring grass and the return of migratory birds.

As kids, our first sign of spring was the melting snow, which was ideal for snowballs. During the better part of winter, the snow was too cold and dry to stick together. After the doldrums of the cold months, any change was welcome. We knew that the huge snowbanks formed in December would start to disappear soon.

Being raised in the country and surrounded by wildlife, we were very aware of the animals around us. They provided signs that spring was really on the way. The red wing blackbirds arrived in mid-February, followed by the robins, bluebirds, meadowlarks, and swallows, each species on its own schedule.

As March ended the world became full of new life. The cows were calving and the sheep were lambing. The pens had litters of infant rabbits, and our meadows were full of cows and ewes with their babies.

By the last part of April, the cottonwoods were noisy with baby magpies and flicker woodpeckers. Flights of geese were constant and each bird was a harbinger of better times and weather to come. We still had over a month of school left, and at times it felt like we were going to miss summer entirely.

On the afternoon of the first of May, I think it was, the teacher herded us up onto the sagebrush hill behind the school, where we picked buttercups and shooting stars. We put the flowers in paper cups with some water, then took them around town to place on people's front porches.

We got out of school near the end of May. After that event, we Catholics attended two weeks of catechism classes given by a couple of nuns who came to Helmville every year to get us ready for confirmation. It was only four hours a day, and even enjoyable at times.

By June another sign of the passage of time appeared. The mosquitoes made it impossible to stay outside in the evenings. They were so many and so aggressive that often I could still hear them around my ears even after I'd been in the house for some time. The sheep had to bunch up and stand with their heads close to the ground, and the horses would run the fencelines until we opened the barn doors and let them inside.

July gave us the 4th and the start of haying. First, the mowers appeared in the meadow next to our house, and that meant the stacking crew would be there in three or four days. That's what I waited for.

As soon as the huge beaver slide stacker was pulled across the county road, I left the house and walked the quarter mile to where the crew was setting up. I spent a good part of every summer with them.

They were an eclectic group of misfits. Some were miners from Butte, getting a summer of fresh air and sun before they went back underground for the winter. Some of the men had spent the better part of their lives working various harvests in the western U.S. After haying was over in Helmville, some went to the Big Hole to stack more hay, and some went to the Palouse in Washington to cut wheat.

I was always treated well and never heard a curse word from them. They were always ready to give me a small piece of chewing tobacco or allow me to drink the foam from a new can of beer. When someone pulled out a pint of whiskey, I was given just one capful – never more. I was never offered a cigarette or cigar. They had their ethics around children.

With an interlude to attend the fair in Deer Lodge, haying and summer came to an end with the last days of August. Swimming in our pond and other warm weather activities waned and we went back to school to wait for the spring birds to tell us that the world would soon come alive.


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